I have now listened to all seven hours of S-Town Podcast and here are my thoughts:
1. If you are a podcaster, a radio maker, or an audio drama producer, you really need to listen to this. This is a gripping and endlessly fascinating portrait that is a game-changer for radio journalism in its depth and nimble wrangling of disparate story threads. The series not only atones for Serial‘s shaky second season, but somehow manages to top that justifiably famous podcast’s gripping first season, which is no small accomplishment.
2. It has one of the best first plot points I have ever heard on radio, which occurs at the end of Episode 2. I don’t want to spoil the twist, but let’s just say that the surprise not only causes us to become even more invested in the story, but consummates an exquisite tonal shift. We are led to believe that we are listening to journalism, but it turns out that this massive series is more akin to a Ron Chernow biography, with supreme attention to the specific psychological details that cause one person — in this case, the brilliant and remarkable geometric maverick John B. McLemore — to live a specific life.
3. The series is smart enough to both present a panoramic portrait of its main character and to leave certain questions oblique and unanswered. In doing so, the contradictions inherent in McLemore transmute into something even more poignant, more representative of a chasm in current American relations between urbanites and small town residents, between North and South, and between the dark and the light. It’s there in the way Brian Reed, our seemingly knowing guide, confesses what he doesn’t know and mispronounces “palaver.” It’s there in his fear and his uncertainty.
4. Uncle Jimmy and the tattoo parlor early in the series: Jesus, this is stunning “you are there” reporting. Usually such atmospheric details are buried because a radio show of this type becomes more about the journalist puffing up his own ego and wanting to land streetcred (or a self-congratulatory appearance on the Longform Podcast). Brian Reed, however, somehow manages to be both thorough in his investigation, yet not always knowledgeable or certain about what he’s getting into. I’m sure that much of this tone has to do with the expert editing contributions of Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, but I hope this tactic becomes more prominently practiced! Podcasters, you have the technology! Go out into the field! Take risks! Dare to be vulnerable! Don’t get comfortable with your armchair Skype recordings. Stop hiding behind your “I’m a badass journalist” narration and be humble! Confess what you do not know! Be active!
5. If I have any criticisms, it is probably with Episode 5. The series loses its way a bit with Rita, straying from its concise focus on McLemore by conveying information that could have been communicated in half the time. Plus, we never quite get the full story of Tyler, the adopted young man who McLemore took under his wing. But this minor flaw is more than atoned for by the surprising personal revelations in Episode 6, in which “grief manual” takes on an unanticipated meaning.
6. In many ways, this series is a celebration of autodidacts. But it’s also one of those portraits that actually has you wanting to feel more compassionate and more present with misfits, outsiders, and those seemingly brilliant people that all of us seem to think we know, but we really don’t.
7. I love the clockmaker subculture and all the horologists in far-off corners of the world. Biographies often become too steeped in one subject, but McLemore’s influence upon others is a vital part of his story. Reed and company get huge props from me for expertly balancing the presentation of a man’s life with the “fingers pointing back” from his peers.
8. The series’s final half hour is harrowing and emotional stuff. It hits you like a locomotive. And you’ll know it when it happens. It is such a perfectly crafted moment. You feel this incredible emotional wave slam into you where you realize, “Oh my god! Oh no! That’s his real life! That’s his pain.” S-Towngoes there in ways that I didn’t think possible from the This American Life crew. So kudos to them for amping it up. It’s inspiring to see all these radio veterans show us that they still have a few new tricks up their sleeve.
If you have seven hours, get on S-Town soon. You’re going to want to listen to this before the clickbait media merchants bombard us with their insipid and needless contrarian “S-Town is overrated” hot takes. Do not listen to them! This is great, highly compelling radio. And it has very much inspired me to do better work as an audio drama producer.
Ever since Samuel Madden responded to Swift in 1733 with the satirical Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, in which letters from a Jesuit-ruled future were magically received in 1728, time travel narratives have proven difficult for many artists to resist. And the audio drama ars PARADOXICA is a terrific one.
Created by Mischa Stanton and Daniel Manning, the program follows Dr. Sally Grissom (played by Kristen DiMercurio) as she records various tapes after inadvertently landing in the early days of the Cold War, forced to work as a wage slave for Uncle Sam and soon finding herself forging friendships and paths to further scientific discovery with other scientists. It is a brainy and sometimes quietly goofy narrative, with null fields, strange small towns, time travel murders, reverse engineered answered machines, and crazed trips to Las Vegas, all buttressed by fantastic vocal work, an expansive narrative, and mysterious numbers that punctuate the end of each episode.
Aside from its growing family of notable characters and surprise plots, one of the reasons why ars PARADOXICA works so well is its careful attention to sound. In the show’s most recent episode, “Anchor,” we hear two characters discussing how “quiet” the 1940s are. This is then followed by a scene in a hotel room that seems a little quieter than one might expect, almost as if the previous reference to silence served as an excuse to avoid hustle and bustle in the mixing. So the listener becomes accustomed to a certain tone, only for that tone to be jarred by events that go down during a road trip later in the episode.
To learn more about the show’s origins, I contacted Mischa Stanton, who was kind enough to answer my many questions over a few weeks. We talked time travel, Stanton’s work as producer on The Bright Sessions, eccentric scientists, and how characters and stories inevitably change no matter how much you plan a grand narrative.
EDWARD CHAMPION: I’d argue that there are two types of time travel narratives: the heady and complicated versions populated by Shane Carruth’s Primer and Donnie Darko and the fun-filled versions seen with Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and, most prominently, Back to the Future (which ars PARADOXICA has extensively name-checked). Then there are films like Looper and 12 Monkeys (or, for that matter, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife), which split the difference between the two varieties. ars PARADOXICA seems to be aiming for that happy compromise. And in asking the inevitable question about how you and head writer Daniel Manning came up with ars PARADOXICA, I’m wondering if you set out to find a middle ground between heady and entertaining (not that they can’t coexist!). How does audio drama lend itself more towards a viable execution of this theoretical Venn diagram? Had you told versions of this story before? I have seen photos of timelines scrawled out on paper that appear to have been devised by one “Mischa Stanton” (answering to the names of Aaron and Abe?). What did you do to plan for this?
MISCHA STANTON: Wow, I’m really glad we’re hitting the mid-point between relaxed and serious time travel! To be perfectly honest, we definitely set out to make the most dark, the most serious, and above all the most logically-sound time travel story we possibly could. Daniel and I were frustrated by the proliferation of time travel media that had flimsy rules that weren’t based in any sort of reality. The likes of The Butterfly Effect, that movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” and Doctor Who. (Oh man, if I never hear the phrase “timey-wimey” again, it’ll be way too soon.) We wanted a world with rules, and a story with strict adherence to those rules. That the show is any funny at all comes from Dan’s writing of Sally (Sally is basically female-Dan) and Kristen DiMercurio’s absolutely killer performance.
That said, the way we approach the show is by having the characters go through some seriously heavy and mind-bending business. So the only way to deal with that and still keep the story swimming is to recognize the utter absurdity of the scenario (in our case, the scenario being “a cold unfeeling universe”), laugh, and carry on. That carries over from how I view life, which is that it’s an absurd and cacophonous mess that is almost entirely out of any one person’s control. So you just gotta laugh!
The time travel concept in and of itself isn’t what drove us to audio. In fact, our very first crack at this “brand” of storytelling we’ve cultivated wasn’t even a time travel story at all. The show started as a numbers station (of which listeners can find an example at the end of each episode) that Daniel and I recorded in our dorm at Emerson College, and then snuck onto the radio in the dead of night while no one was listening. It was only after we did it once that we begin to consider, “Okay, why does this numbers station exist? Who is it from? Who is it to?” And from there, we expanded out to “a secret government time travel conspiracy.”
As for how much we have planned, without giving too much away, I’ll say this: We had the last episode outlined before the pilot. I think that’s probably the best way to write a time travel story: write the ending first. That way, all of your logical knots untangle into something concrete at the end. You also get a ton of opportunities to foreshadow plot threads and plant little seeds for later that we, as fans, love to pick apart and unravel.
CHAMPION: I had a feeling that you and Daniel knew each other, but I didn’t realize how far back the connection went! And it does have me wondering if anybody ever replied to your college radio cryptographic code. (Certainly, I felt compelled to tweet back minutes after listening to the first episode of ars PARADOXICA!) This leads me to wonder how you managed to land the magnificent Kristen DiMercurio and how you went about casting this. Did you rely largely on people you knew? Did you willfully establish a universe with constraints because the best creative work typically emerges out of creative limitations? The fact that you bleep out the year that Sally came from and that you regularly bombard Sally’s diary entries with interference suggests a keen commitment to creative obfuscation! I’m almost wondering how much you folks obsess over the minutest details. The Wooden Overcoats fellows told me that they even have “placeholder” jokes until they can get it right. If you are sitting on a massive pile of paperwork (and I suspect you are!), what freedom do you allow yourself to deviate or improvise — whether in the writing or the recording of ars PARADOXICA?
STANTON: We’ve had a few die-hard fans figure out the codes— which is a lot of fun for us because that just means we get to come up with harder codes! Shoutout to Brian B and Phoebe S, the lead code-breakers out there.
aP is actually Kristen’s first voice acting gig! I knew her in college (not super well, but we often attended the same theatre program parties), and she posted on our college’s alumni Facebook group asking if anyone had any leads on classes for voice acting. We messaged her the same day: “Wanna read for a lead role in our show?” And now she’s absolutely blowing up the scene. She’s working with Two-Up Productions on their next thing. She’s playing Selina Kyle in an adaptation of Batman: Year One. She’s getting casting calls left and right for different audio dramas. We really found something special with Kristen, and the show wouldn’t be nearly as good without her.
A lot of the cast are just actor friends of mine. I knew Reyn Beeler, Dan Anderson, Katie Speed, and Lee Satterwhite from college (along with a lot of our “additional voices” cast), and Zach Ehrlich and Susanna Kavee and I go all the way back to high school. The one big find I made outside of my friend group was Robin Gabrielli, who plays Anthony Partridge. I met him through the director of a play I designed back in Boston. Man, is that guy just a treasure. And of course, now that I’m out of college and working in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, I have a much wider base to pull new actors from!
As far as constraints, one of my design heroes, Mark Rosewater, likes to reiterate “restrictions breed creativity.” The blank page can be intimidating. So giving yourself conditions to go by helps to realize your story a long way. That’s why we keep to such strict rules in aP. We think the “Only to the past, not before 1943” framework makes for a more interesting story. But within that, we try to keep an open mind about what is possible. It’s been especially interesting in Season 2, since we’ve opened the world up to a new writing staff. And now they come to me with questions of “Does this work?” or “Can I do this?” or “Will this break the rules?” And it’s great to have clear yes/no answers, to work with the writers to fit their grand ideas into this framework.
Once the scripts are written, the story is mostly locked-in. We do a lot of work with the writers to make sure everything (a) makes sense within the world, (b) sounds consistent with how we want to portray the characters, and (c) sets up the plot threads needed for future stories. However, when I get in the booth with an actor, often we’ll find something that doesn’t make sense or that sounds awkward to say. Or we’ll find a leftover line from a previous edit that doesn’t fit anymore and we change it up. We’re not married to the text of each individual line. I’ve also recorded whole scenes and then cut them in editing (usually I run this by the writer first). “No scene is worth a line and no show is worth a scene,” as Daniel likes to say!
CHAMPION: I presume that some of the newer actors, such as L. Jeffrey Moore and Alexander Cole in “Asset,” are people you haven’t known before. How did you go about finding actors once your creative universe started to expand? What difference is there in working with someone you’ve known for a long time and someone new? Have you had to make adjustments when, say, Kristen wasn’t available for an episode? One common suggestion I’ve heard among radio drama producers is “Don’t look at your actors” and I have to confess that, while this is eminently pragmatic and sensible, it does suggest a queasy parallel to certain big name Hollywood actors who secure guarantees that crew members should never give them eye contact when they are on set. Given that eye contact is pretty damn essential in talking with and working with people, even for something that is designed for the ear, what do you do to cultivate an atmosphere of intimacy? How have you become better at directing the actors? Have you ever had to bend the draconian rules that you and Daniel established at the beginning to serve the characters?
STANTON: As we’ve expanded our cast (and we have a huge cast) I’ve relied on people I know, or friends of people who are already involved. I met Jeff through Robin Gabrielli, Alex is a fellow audio producer. I was the audio engineer for a musical produced in LA written by Rebekah Allen, who plays Bridget in Episode 13. There was a similar case with Arjun Gupta, who will be in Episode 14. Collaborative art forms, especially audio drama, are all about building your networks outward until you find who you need. Fortunately, the audio drama community has been incredibly welcoming!
I have never heard about “no eye contact,” but I wouldn’t subscribe to that even if I had. A lot of our recording sessions are done by remote. Rather than send an actor off to record on their own, I almost always schedule a time to read with them over Skype. I find it creates a much more personal experience for the actor, which translates to their relationship with the audience in a tangible way.
When we started, I had absolutely no experience directing voice actors. I learned everything I know while creating this show. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is knowing what you want going in and not being afraid to ask for this plainly and without fear. You also shouldn’t be afraid to re-take a line until you’re satisfied!
Fortunately, we’ve only had to bend the script to accommodate an unavailable actor once. And even then, the actress had recorded material previously that we were able to use. As far as bending the story, I like to think of it as a bonsai tree: We can bend as we move forward. But once we make a bend, we have to stick to it. What comes before, even the bends, become the solid foundation for everything that comes after.
CHAMPION: So your story is as naturally expansive as matter contending with repulsive gravity! Since we’re finding a cosmological constant of sorts and since you’ve previously expressed how you put a hard foot down on “timey wimey,” I’m wondering what you’ve done in the name of research. Do you have any salivating physicists trapped in a closet who are willing to unpack entropy and effective field theory for a few scraps of food? Have you relied on any particular books or texts? I get a general Harvard-MIT vibe (a good one, not an obnoxious one!) from ars PARADOXICA and I’m curious what background you, Daniel, and your nimble gang of collaborators have in science? Do you ever find that the dramatization of science or theory gets in the way of exploring characters? Perhaps this was one reason you had the team go to Vegas?
STANTON: I can tell you straight off that we only barely have a background in science. As far as formal training goes, I studied psychology and psychoacoustics (the study of sound perception) in college, and I’m an audio and acoustical engineer by trade; and Daniel like…got an A- in 10th grade Chemistry. Beyond that, the only things we know about particle physics and entropy are what we’ve researched for the show, and most of that was just hours and hours combing Wikipedia articles and their sources (here’s a pro tip for anyone writing a college paper: don’t cite Wikipedia, cite Wikipedia’s sources). I’ve never considered myself a scientist. I’m more of an artist heavily influenced by scientific discoveries, information, and techniques.
The Vegas episode (03: Trinity, Acts I & II) was definitely a point where writing the story butted up against our lack of formal scientific training. In that episode, the characters have to present time travel as a viable tool for the US government muckety-mucks, and then spend weeks trying to devise a presentation. But we found while writing the episode that we couldn’t actually come up with a viable presentation to even write into the show! We had the same struggle as the characters in creating a formal time travel presentation that wasn’t just sleight-of-hand. So that’s what we had the characters do. In the end, they just do some sleight-of-hand. And it doesn’t work. They fail their presentation. The program shuts down. And they end up having to move to a tiny town in Colorado. So in that way, the science and our understanding of it (or lack thereof) really informed the direction of the entire show.
That said, we wrote Episode 03 in the very first batch of scripts, before we even had Kristen on the show, before it was out in the world. Working with the show out in the world for over a year now has given us a better grasp on what we can and can’t do. And I’m proud to say we’ve finally figured out how to design some really cool time travel experiments. Stay tuned for Episode 15, I’m really proud of it.
CHAMPION: You also produce The Bright Sessions and I’m terribly curious about (a) how this happened, (b) how working within another person’s vision differs from what you and the gang have established at ars PARADOXICA, and (c) what you did to make Lauren’s job easier? Was there anything she wasn’t doing that you implemented?
STANTON: I found The Bright Sessions as a fan first! I was trying to find other shows like ours, and I kept seeing people mention The Bright Sessions, so back in March I listened to the first season on a plane ride. I was hooked. And then there was a mid-season announcement on her feed, where Lauren said that if she made enough Patreon money she’d be able to hire an audio producer who actually knew audio. And I said to myself, “I’m an audio producer!” So I emailed Lauren the next day offering to jump in with her. She’s got the acting and directing stuff down, but she wasn’t as well-versed in the audio production, the mixing, the creation of sound effects. So I’ve helped prop up what she doesn’t know, so that she has been able to tell bigger and more ambitious stories. Before I started, the show was still mostly two people in a room. But once I joined she was able to give her characters more things to do and more space to do them in. As I checked my email to respond to this question, Lauren just sent me confirmation that The Bright Sessions #24 (“Zero Hour,” her Season 2 finale) is ready for launch. And, of course, your readers will have already heard it by the time this interview comes out. So they’ll know that it’s our most ambitious episode yet.
I’ve been working in collaborative theatre environments for twelve years. So designing to someone else’s vision is actually pretty par for the course for me (that I have so much more creative control on aP than I usually do is probably why I push so hard with it). Lauren is an amazing boss. She has such a clear pictures of these characters in her head. It’s like they’re all real people she knows and hangs out with, but that I’ve never met. She always knows exactly what she wants, even if she doesn’t always have the best words to describe it. We’ve developed a lot of trust. So she gives me a lot of freedom to craft the soundscapes of the show. But that’s my job! Lauren asks for a mood, a general feel to the episode (or she suggests it in her writing) and it’s my job to take that mood and interpret it as a soundscape. That’s what a sound designer does: takes the tool of sound, and uses it to provoke emotional responses to tell a unified story. (Are you listening, Tony Awards?)
CHAMPION: I should probably disclose that I am terribly fond of fun dramatizations of science and scientists, whether they hit the more eccentric strains seen with John Noble’s Dr. Walter Bishop in Fringe, Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, or Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator or the more straight-laced eccentric seen with Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Seth Brundle in The Fly, Dr. Hubert J. Farnswoth in Futurama, or (more medical than physics) Dr. Dana Scully in The X-Files (which seems to be the closest model for Dr. Sally Grissom). What impresses me about ars PARADOXICA is how you’ve rooted Dr. Grissom in reality and that scientists as a whole don’t fall into the authoritative eccentric model that we’ve become so accustomed to. I’m very interested if any of this factored into the writing and devising of these episodes, even before you had Kristen. To what degree is your background in acoustics responsible for a similarly dogged commitment to the real? (The Truth‘s Jonathan Mitchell also has an extensive audio and music background, which I suspect is heavily responsible for that marvelous program’s commitment to grounding his stories in base reality.)
STANTON: I think stories have a tendency to boil down a knowledgeable character into a one-dimensional role— “the Scientist/the Smart One.” And with good reason. It’s a great exposition machine when you need the story to move along, especially in media where you’re on a strict time limit like TV. Cop shows do this a lot with the ME/Coroner character, just as a way to spit out pertinent medical information and move the plot forward. And then, often to give a bit of color to it, a producer will throw in a generalized “eccentricity,” as you call it, to make the character at least partly memorable. But with a show like ours, something that is all about the science and how it affects the people close to it, being smart or being a scientist is a given. So yeah, Esther is smart, but she’s also caring, calculating, judgmental, and ambitious. Yeah, Sally’s a scientist, but she’s also a movie lover, a stranger in a foreign land, and an amateur comedian (one of our tenants of writing Sally is “she thinks she’s hilarious”). When “scientist” is the norm, there’s no need to stick to the trope. So it gives us far more room to play in.
A lot of what our show explores is the morality of discovery. I’ve often said that science tells us what we can do. But it’s up to humanity to decide what we should do. Often you don’t know what you should do until you’ve already made a mistake. I think that’s part of what makes Sally such an interesting character to listen to. She invented this time machine entirely by accident and, before anyone could ask her what she thinks should be done with the technology, the tech is already in the hands of one of the most powerful governments on Earth in the middle of a war. So a lot of the show is Sally reconciling her love of unbounded discovery with the fear of moving ahead too fast, before she’s able to consider the consequences of her actions.
As far as my own acoustical background, I think that’s what allows me to imagine what a room sounds like, to determine which elements are vital to conveying action and which ones just get in the way. Wherever I go, I always take a moment to listen to a room and break apart the tone into pieces for later use. For example, in Episode 13, there’s a moment where two characters travel from drinking in a crowded bar in New York City to post-sex in an empty apartment. For me, setting up that scene meant: (1) muffled city noise behind the apartment walls, (2) heavy breathing, (3) rustling bedsheets, (4) grabbing a lighter and lighting a cigarette. These moments are all disconnected pieces when you listen to them individually. But when put together there’s really only one thing that could have happened in the intervening space. And that’s the trick to building convincing scenes in audio drama. It’s not just finding the right sound effects. It’s finding the exact combination of elements that can only mean what you want these to say.
And thank you so much for that comparison! Jonathan is an incredible artist, and The Truth was a huge inspiration to me. I had just picked it up as I was mixing our first episode. It really showed me what a podcast can do, and pushed me to make aP even better.
CHAMPION: I completely detected the “she thinks she’s hilarious” vibe from Sally as she records her diary entries, which is a peculiar cousin to loneliness. It’s not unlike the relentless pop cultural references that fuel Eiffel’s monologues in Wolf 359. Eiffel believes he’s a standup comic to some degree, but he’s also deeply flustered in deep space. In my conversation with The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippens, we discussed how the natural intimacy of radio often lends itself to this therapeutic feeling, almost as if you’re eavesdropping upon a rather naked portrait of human emotions. With Sally, we often have her zest colliding with her frustration and ennui, almost as if she’s masking her true feelings as dutifully as you’re bleeping out the year she came from. How long can you sustain these emotional revelations by omission in a long-running serial? Was this one of the reasons you juxtaposed Sally’s life and explorations with the tension between Partridge and his wife? Also, the two-part episode “Consequence” almost tips the balance of the show altogether by showing another side of Partridge and the larger panorama of the research program. And it does have me wondering if much of this episode (and ars PARADOXICA as a whole) was designed to avoid what I call the Cuse-Lindeloff Enigmatic Storytelling Paradox, whereby a series dollops endless mysteries to rope the audience in, keeps bombarding the audience with more mysteries (perhaps as seductive as the earlier ones) while failing to resolve the previous mysteries, and only succeeds in infuriating the audience for not resolving story strands either fast or satisfyingly enough. The audience comes to resent the show and the mysteries, wondering why they bothered to tune in altogether, and turns their pitchforks on the creators for their storytelling gaffes. You alluded earlier to having a vision for the ending. While it’s impossible for any producer to anticipate the full extent of how an audience reacts, you do have a massive story. And I’m wondering the extent that you’ve addressed or anticipated this!
STANTON: We are definitely reaching a tipping point with Sally. She’s resilient, but… Okay I really don’t want to give anything away. But we’re not ignoring the compounded effects of the utter heaps of tragedies that our show has been heaping onto her. The next few episodes are really going to bring that to a head.
As for why she masks her feelings that way? That’s a byproduct of Sally being basically an amalgam of Daniel, Kristen, myself, and someone who actually knows science. I think that the three of us have a lot of zest, a lot of ideas we want to explore and a lot of things we want to say and do, as well as a lot of frustration with the world we’re living in. So we use pop culture, just like Sally does (or wishes she could) as a place that is comfortable to hide our true feelings about everything going on around us. And I think you can probably say that about a lot of people right now.
And that’s coming through in a bunch of audio dramas as well. A lot of shows, like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes and Small Town Horror, are all about living on the very edge of the unknown and getting your hands and your mind around it, trying to make some sense of the world. A lot of the things about the world that I believed to be true changed as I grew up in it. Now I think that a lot of us don’t know what to expect anymore. But we don’t want to hide from the world. So the only other option is to embrace the unknown. And pop culture references.
As for “Consequence,”Season 1 (and yes, the show from start to finish) was 100% a response to the kind of storytelling that use questions first and answers maybe. All of our questions have answers. Of course, we adapt that answer to what happens in the middle, but we are always moving toward the answer. I want our fans — or people who invest hours of their time and thought to us at the very least — to be satisfied that what we’ve built was always with purpose. I want our ending to seem unexpected yet inevitable.
CHAMPION:“Signal”‘s journey through airports allowed us to learn a few qualities about Sally — that she smokes, that she prefers jeans to sweatpants (which the part of me that bemoans sweatpants as the default American sartorial choice was pleased to learn!). And I am curious about the extent that you have worked out little personality quirks with the actors. Obviously, a story as intricate and imbricated as ars PARADOXICA is going to serve plot more than character. But how much character work do you do? Do you and Daniel struggle sometimes to find character moments? And how fixed are the answers to your questions? Have there been any radical shifts that you’ve made during the course of production? Has a read on a take ever drastically altered your story?
STANTON: I’m not sure if she smokes as a habit! Of course a lot of people did in the 40s so she may have picked it up, but she does know how bad it is for her. No, I think we wrote that in because it’s something you can’t do on planes now, and Sally is, above all, a rebel.
We’ve built the characters slowly over time. In the beginning we didn’t know much. But after casting, the actors’ readings of the scripts definitely changed how we portrayed them. Esther Roberts wouldn’t be half as interesting if it wasn’t for the amount of work Katie Speed has put into the show. Now she might be my favorite character. Chet Whickman was supposed to be a one-off soldier guy, but when Reyn [Beeler] came to record, he had put such thought and care into his performance that we knew we had to keep him on.
Our answers are usually fairly set things, but the path we take to get there is mutable. For instance, we thought we were going to stay in Polvo New Mexico for a lot longer (as an analogue to the Manhattan Project). But then we rewrote Episode 03 so that they failed in their presentation and the town got shut down, which informed a lot of how we wrote the rest of Season 1 — coming from that place of failure as opposed to being in the successful environment they had in Polvo.
CHAMPION: What’s the biggest blunder you made in the first season? What would you do differently? What’s the biggest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?
STANTON: I don’t really have a great answer to this. We never made one big blunder. It just felt like a rolling series of tiny blunders. Errors in pre-planning, in communication, that made us scramble to meet deadlines a couple of times. Errors in marketing, and in how we set up the technical back-end. Not knowing my software as well as I could. aP is the first audio drama we’ve made, we’re so new to the medium, I learned so much making that first season. And I think that’s the biggest piece of advice I can give: You’re not going to get everything right the first time, or even the second time. It’s really important to forgive your own mistakes as you’re learning.
I think Ira Glass really said it best:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
Wooden Overcoats may be one of the best British comedies in years. But you won’t find it on the BBC or Netflix and you won’t find it in theaters. To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we conducted a lengthy chat with head writer David K. Barnes and his nimble co-conspirator Felix Trench to find out how this hilarious and independent production was put together.
Wooden Overcoats is one of the best British comedies in years. But it doesn’t involve Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. You won’t find it playing in a movie theater or streaming through Netflix. This is distinguished, sometimes eccentric, and frequently hilarious comedy carefully honed for the ear, a production that is both of our podcasting age and that naturally jumps off from Spike Mulligan and Peter Sellers’s goofy radio experimentation.
Telling the tale of two rival funeral homes competing for business on a mile-wide island of Piffling (a forgotten strip in the Channel Islands), with embittered local Rudyard Funn (“displaying the athleticism that comes only to a man whose entire fortunes rest on burying a seagull before six o’clock”) brushing up against a dashing new mortuary upstart named Eric Chapman, the listener is immediately struck by how fresh, original, ambitious, and committed this show feels. The story is narrated by a memoir-writing mouse, for one thing, voiced by veteran actor Belinda Lang. Amazingly, the show was produced entirely independent. The scripts were so good that the crew behind this massive operation not only persuaded veteran actors and nimble newcomers alike to work for nearly nothing. They even assembled a small orchestra to record the show’s theme.
Last September, Wooden Overcoats unveiled its first season of eight episodes. While this seemingly out of nowhere release earned deservedly rapturous praise from many in the audio drama community, it remains a great mystery why this wonderful and truly sui generis production hasn’t been more passionately endorsed by those who profess to know all culture. In addition to being terribly funny, Wooden Overcoats is also highly accomplished audio drama with energetic voice work and nimble effects and a meticulously timed pace. It is the kind of program that might never have found support within the limited ambitions of current media institutions.
Within minutes of listening to Wooden Overcoats‘s first episode, I suspected that the program had been put together with a great deal of thought, care, and attention. After I plunged into this magnificent show, discovering that I could not stop listening, I contacted head writer David K. Barnes and actor Felix Trench (who plays Rudyard) to find out just how this show was made. These two affable gents responded to my many questions. And we fell into a two week frenzy of perspicacious banter, which has been presented below.
EDWARD CHAMPION: Aside from the sheer fun I had binge-listening to the entire first season in less than 24 hours, there were a number of curious qualities that I noticed about Wooden Overcoats. There’s a certain cultural history of narratives set on islands, ranging from Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Muriel Spark’s woefully underrated novel Robinson (of which Wooden Overcoats suggested close associations!), to the islands that populate David Mitchell’s novels, to Gilligan’s Island and Lost and the beautifully nutty 1973 film The Wicker Man. In all of these examples (and even Sherwood Schwartz populated his island with an eccentric ensemble!), the island’s geographical limitations somehow provided their creators with a kind of license to go big, whether it meant a labyrinthine plot or an allegory or an exploration of strange behavior. I’m wondering how your own island came about. Did you consider other island narratives before making this? Why did you feel that radio was the best way to tell this story?
DAVID K. BARNES: We started with the basic premise of two competing funeral directors and knew that they’d have to be in a small community for the comedy to work. I decided very early on whilst plotting the first episode that it’d be best if Rudyard had lived in this community all his life and that Eric was brand new, arriving in that episode, and that the power struggle would be essentially one-sided. A village on the mainland seemed to me to provide too many avenues of escape — Rudyard could essentially move, if his pride would let him — and so we thought setting the series on an island would isolate everybody and raise the stakes.
Though I’ve read Robinson Crusoe and seen The Wicker Man and so on, I can’t say I was inspired by any of them, though I am generally very interested in the history of tiny islands and countries. Small communities developing their own traditions and taking whatever they want from the culture of the outside world… I was also born and raised in Portsmouth, UK, which is an island steeped in naval history. Quite honestly, however, very little of all this is reflected in Wooden Overcoats!
FELIX TRENCH: I’ve listened to radio comedy since I was a teenager; I suspect that’s the same for a lot of us who get into it. I grew up in mainland Europe and an abiding memory is staticy BBC Radio 4 LW fading Dead Ringers in and out as we waited for the lights to turn green.
I began Audioscribble with a couple of other actors in 2012 (in a graveyard weirdly) as a way to make work for ourselves in a medium we love but has few openings. There’s a long tradition in comedy of starting out on the radio and coming back to it (like Mitchell and Webb did recently or Stephen Fry’s series on etymology). Having a state broadcaster like the BBC who run much of the most listened to/watched radio and TV and make their own content probably has something to do with that. It never occurred to me that we’d do it another way.
CHAMPION: What accounts for some of the unusual mathematical factors (a mouse tells the story — a very small being; two competing funeral parlors)? Do you feel that scope inevitability arises from creative limitations?
BARNES: It’s usually a function of storytelling. There are two competing funeral parlours because three would dilute the impact of the narratives and characters. The island has one of everything because then you can keep going back to those locations and develop recurring characters. The narrator being a mouse arose from the fact that when writing the first episode I wanted to tie the narrator into the action, and felt that the episode needed to end on a twist that would intrigue the audience enough to listen to Episode 2. I’d early on established that Rudyard’s only friend was a mouse and then thought, well, why not make the mouse narrate the show? A mouse can observe everything without being observed itself! And she’s writing a memoir for commercial gain, which explains why she’s (a) telling us all this, and (b) telling us only the “good bits”. Almost everything that happens in WO is a result of a carefully decided plan on how best to tell the story in an involving and entertaining way.
TRENCH: Limits are amazing. They force you to focus on story which is the most important thing. In Season 1, David purposefully looked for writers for the team who had a background in playwrighting knowing that he could add the jokes later if needed. Giving yourself a limit (or even better having someone give it to you) pulls you out of the patterns you’re comfortable with and makes you think in ways that you wouldn’t have before. I’ve worked as an actor both on roles I’ve written and roles I haven’t and I vastly prefer the latter – it’s more satisfying to look for a way into someone else’s mind than roll around in your own. The pitching process to the usual radio channels in this country recently became a lot harder to break into which is what ultimately forced us to gamble on podcasting.
CHAMPION: Did such a mantra extend to some off the writing (such as many of the seaside adventures)? Also, just how in the sam hill did you two goofy fellows hook up for this?
BARNES: There’s certainly a lot you can do with audio. There are huge sequences in some of our episodes which would be very expensive to film as television, and tricky to do on stage (the flooded mortuary swimming in corpses, Rudyard’s clifftop excursion…). So, as long as we can effectively communicate what’s happening to the audience, we like to try out a few big set pieces. Also, the idea that the island is a mile wide and yet has all these things on it is conceptually very interesting and ridiculous in a way I think is best suited for audio. You couldn’t visualise it on TV, and in written prose you’d probably notice how improbable it was. On audio you kind of go along with it. I told my writers to establish whatever they wanted on the island because Piffling could certainly accommodate it.
TRENCH: David and I have known each other since 2006. We were both studying at Edinburgh, along with our production manager, Liz. I graduated the year before them and moved to London and, long story short, we all ended up living together. I met Tom Crowley on a playwrighting course in 2012 and he and I have worked on projects together ever since. We’ve often noted how our careers tend to parallel each other’s and we’ve ended up in the same spot from different performance backgrounds. I initially pitched to him a short film about rival undertakers for us both to work on/be in and we made some plans but never followed through. Six months later, we revived the idea as an audio sitcom and brought it to David as a concept. He disappeared for twenty minutes then came back with a treatment for episode 1, I had a quiet word with Tom, and we asked if he’d like to run the show. I’d worked with David on a couple of other projects before — including an audio comedy — and knew that whatever he’d do, it would be good.
CHAMPION:Wooden Overcoats has this interesting tension between a bustling cadre of characters and the inherent limitations of a small community. Given the intimacy of the medium, how ambitious do you think audio drama can be in sustaining an epic scope? As you point out, you can certainly stage epic incidents, such as flooded mortuaries.
TRENCH: Radio 4 adapted Neverwhere recently, Naxos gave us a Michael Sheen-led Sophocles cycle, there was a big Lord of the Rings adaptation in the early 80s, Hitchhiker’s crossed the axes of time, space and probability, and just last year we had all the John Le Carré Smiley books so… pretty ambitious. I think the size is in the storytelling choices. Radio is well-suited, as you say, to intimate because you’re talking in somebody’s ear. You’ve got a different set of toys at the IMAX, different again at the theatre. There’s a truism in acting that goes something like “play the size of the room, not the size you want to play”. Radio is to an audience of one which is strange in any other medium (I think, I can’t think of any examples right now) so it’s up to us as creators to create that sense of the epic, if that’s what we’re going for, for a single audience. I think who that audience of one is is changing though. There is a difference between listening to the Afternoon Play while chopping vegetables and listening to Night Vale while curled up in bed or on the tube. If I tell you a story from three feet away, it’s different to if I tell it in your ear. The current wave of podcast dramas are even more direct than what we’re used to — probably more so than ours which takes a very traditional approach but adds in the Madeleine narration to tie us to the podcasting world.
CHAMPION: During the writing, the pragmatics of production, or the jarring discoveries in post-production, have you run into any hurdles that have caused you to scale back in any way?
TRENCH: Not yet! David’s a good enough writer not to demand the impossible and the producers are good enough producers to provide the impossible anyway. We were constantly surprised listening to Season 1 how much detail they’d put in. There’s a moment in Episode 4 where Madeleine is chased by a clockwork toy which you only catch if you listen carefully, Antigone’s survival suit became a full on 60s cosmonaut’s outfit, and our composer provided specific background music for the big set pieces.
CHAMPION: I also noticed that, in your Kickstarter campaign, you’ve invited your supporters to devise a creative form of death. To what degree are you beholden to entertaining an audience? In what creative ways do you diverge from this?
BARNES: I’d say that we’re entirely beholden to entertaining our audiences. However, the best way of doing that is to create what we personally believe is an entertaining programme and hope that our audiences enjoy it too. I tend to write my scripts with a view to thinking up a dramatic and/or amusing situation, and then going, “If I were in the audience, what would I want to see?” And then once I’ve come up with a few scenes on that principle, I finish with, “How can I put a twist on this that they wouldn’t have imagined themselves?” I think that’s the way to satisfy your audience, hold their attention, and keep them wanting more.
I have known writers who entirely disregard their audiences, which I think is arrogant and foolish. Your audience buys tickets to your shows — or downloads your podcast — and recommends you to their family and friends. You’ve got to provide them with something worth their while, or they’ll find it elsewhere. But equally, the old maxim that “people don’t know what they want until they’ve got it” holds true. We all enjoy getting some more of the same but we tire of it very quickly. It’s why I like having guest writers on the series: not only does it take some of the pressure off me, but they also come up with fresh ideas and perspectives that I’d never have come up with by myself, which reinvigorates the series.
I think it’s the dramatic qualities of the show which keep our audiences listening and re-listening. When I delivered the “Bane of Rudyard” script to my directors and was asked to produce another seven, they said they wanted to do this show in the studio rather than in front of a live audience. They wanted me to explore the dramatic potential of the characters and situations without having to flood the series with one-liner gags (which can make a comedy sound superficial unless the writing is exceptionally sharp).
As Felix mentioned above, I tend to approach writers from theatrical backgrounds like myself. Not all of them had even written comedy before but they all had superb instincts for creating dramatic situations. I said to them, “Don’t concentrate on being funny, whatever you do. Let your imagination run free, and focus on being interesting.” It doesn’t take a great deal of work to take something serious and make it amusing (or the other way around). My favourite episode to write in the first season was “Georgina and the Waves,” in which one of the silliest situations of the series evoked some of the most wrenching character drama, and still managed to be — I think — very funny. In this respect, I’m heavily influenced by Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking, an essential read for any writer.
From the feedback I’ve read, our audiences have really taken our characters to heart, and I believe that’s because whilst Rudyard and Antigone etc. are ridiculous, they’re also based in something very real. They’re hurt and ennobled and motivated by the same things we are. They never do anything just to make the audience laugh, yet I think they’re very funny characters all the same.
CHAMPION: Since we’re on the subject of ambition, I am curious if the large cast was always part of the plan. Was your approach simply to create a fun story and figure out how to attract high caliber talent (along with figuring out their schedules) in the act of production?
TRENCH: We always knew we could get highly talented writers and actors because London is brimming with them. There’s a real problem here, like in other big creative cities, of the opportunities being scarcer than the workforce. We owe a lot to Max Tyler, Sarah Burton, Peter Wicks, Pip Gladwin, and Holly Campbell who play many of our islanders and smaller roles throughout the series, or help out at live shows when the series actors can’t make it, and are all brilliant.
Bringing in producers Andy [Goddard] and John [Wakefield] gave the project bigger scope than we had originally thought about. They introduced the ideas of full scoring and live instruments, episode guests on top of the regular company, and approaching a few household names.
CHAMPION: Did you have any narrow production scheduling confines that you had to meet (either out of necessity or self-imposed)?
TRENCH: Once the studio’s booked, those are your dates. It’s difficult to rearrange when you have a big team.
CHAMPION: it is my understanding that many of your actors worked for free. This leads me to wonder whether you forewent rehearsal and simply recorded the sides in the time slots that the actors available. (Obviously, any working actor is going to have to say yes to paid work first.) Is a quality script enough of an incentive for a talent to commit time and energy for a long-form production?
TRENCH: All of our actors worked for expenses in Season 1 — we covered food and travel for the initial readthroughs and the recording. There was a lot of pizza. Rehearsals are unusual in radio, at least here they are. You’ll have the readthrough, maybe a few readthroughs if the script’s in development, and then perhaps a rehearsal before the take which will include a bit of blocking but it’s not like theatre. The whole process is closer to TV. We had a bit of flexibility with the recording process which gave us the luxury to record in sequence — which we did over four days. A couple of scenes had to be done out of order when guest’s schedules changed but not much. From an actor’s perspective, in sequence is amazing because you know exactly were you are in your mind at any one point and it’s easier to play the moment. As to the script, depends on the actor! The people who came on board with us did so because of the scripts.
CHAMPION: What deals did you have to cut to get people on board beyond this?
TRENCH: None that I know of. Maybe Andy secretly makes breakfast for the actors every morning. If he does, I want in.
CHAMPION: How many of the principals have pledged to return to the second season?
TRENCH: We haven’t yet reached the stage where an actor’s unavailability has led to re-writes, though I must always remain prepared for that being a potential issue until recording takes place.
BARNES: The scripts are still being written and cast requirements being drawn up, though those actors to whom we’ve already spoken about returning to Season Two have stated how keen they are to do it. Our four principals – Felix, Beth, Tom ,and Ciara – are certainly on board.
CHAMPION: Has actor availability forced you to alter any of the scripts (in either season)? I was also hoping to learn more about how David works with the other writers. What replaces a writer’s room in radio drama? Lots of Skype sessions? Emails? Dropbox and Facebook groups?
BARNES: All of my writers live in London, so it’s always feasible to meet them in person. However, they’re also all very busy, so it’s rare that I can get them into the same room at once. The pattern for Season One, which I repeated for Season Two, was to meet each writer individually to discuss the series, its characters, and any ideas they had. Then there’d be a meeting of the whole writing team — which, because of availability, is probably the only time we’ll be together in one place — during which everybody gives the broad outline of a few episode ideas. These are bounced around, discussed, and by the end of the meeting every writer has an idea that everybody is excited about. From then on, I keep in contact with each writer individually by e-mail or telephone.
My feedback on breakdowns and drafts is often extensive because I tend to know what I want from each episode once the writer has devised their idea. But the flip side is that I want to allow writers a lot of room to work by themselves the rest of the time; nobody likes somebody breathing down their neck when they’re trying to create!
CHAMPION: How much revision do you think is enough?
BARNES: Most problems with a story can be solved very early on at the scene-by-scene breakdown stage. That’s when you know if things don’t make sense, or an episode isn’t likely to be paced properly, or lead characters don’t have enough to do. If necessary, I’ll rework a writer’s breakdown myself and suggest that it’s probably a good compromise between their original idea and how it might be best deployed within the context of the show.
After that, the writers will do a first and then a second draft. I then take over, doing any necessary edits and re-writes. If the writer is happy with those, it goes to my producers for their opinion, and I may carry out additional edits based on their feedback. Then it goes to a full reading with available actors, with the writers and producers present, and a discussion will ensue. Any additional edits (usually very small by this stage) will occur before we get into studio to record. For Season One, I could count the number of lines that needed alteration in the studio on one hand, really. We really knock them into shape and ensure that everybody is happy.
Generally, the more work put in earlier at the planning stage, the fewer headaches later on. When we did our Season One readthrough, it was a case of, “This particular line doesn’t work,” rather than, “This plot doesn’t work.”
CHAMPION: What mistakes do you feel you made during the first season? How do you keep the door open for continued “on the job” learning?
BARNES: Everybody was, as you say, learning on the job, so I’m sure everybody can point to things they’d do differently the next time round. The trick is to carry on doing the things that worked and to experiment to make them work even better! From a writing perspective, I’ve never been entirely happy with how the last episode devotes a considerable amount of the climax to the machinations of a secondary character; that was me trying to tie up as many plot threads as possible in too short a space of time. The production certainly pulls it off, but I should have found a more elegant solution at the time. I’m trying to pace things slightly better in Season 2, with the final episode placing the leads front and centre. Otherwise, for my first attempt at head writing and script editing an entire series, the whole thing went much more smoothly than I’d imagined!
CHAMPION: Audio drama is a free and liberating medium with many very cool, exuberant, and passionate people forming a magnificent community. But do you foresee any dangers to the inevitable professionalization of audio drama?
TRENCH: Bigger companies coming in with bigger budgets will make it harder for smaller outfits to be heard. We’re in a time of opportunity where nobody quite knows the rules and we’re all working out how we fit together and that’s lovely. But I agree. It won’t necessarily last. My hope is that if something’s good, the democracy of the internet will give it coverage to flourish. This is a really great medium for new creative voices everywhere to make themselves heard and reach a wide audience without too much outlay. I’m looking forward to finding out who else is out there and what stories they want to tell. The downloadable podcast drama I’m aware of is based mostly in North America … and us. Even if we stick to the English-speaking world, where’s everyone else? I want to hear a really great Australian or New Zealander or Irish or South African podcast drama. There’s one being put together in South Korea but recorded all over I’m very excited about, because of how it’s being made as much as the story – that’s a product that just couldn’t have existed until recently.
CHAMPION: In describing how Wooden Overcoats came into fruition and the way in which the second season is being put together, it seems to me that the creative/production process is very much about reacting to concepts and working out the expression of these reactions through revision and readthroughs. But you can’t calculate everything. I’m wondering the degree to which you two agonize over this and how you contend with any perfectionist streaks.
BARNES: I have deadlines I need to meet: it’s as simple as that. At the moment, I’m several months away and the writing is still pretty slow. I’m agonising over every line, every syllable, revising as I go, pacing the room and pondering if this is the best way to go about constructing a scene. I’ve just spent three hours deliberating over whether Georgie should be having a certain conversation with the Mayor or Madeleine. Pretty soon, however, I won’t have the luxury of time, and I’ll just have to fly by impulse, which is when I tend to do my best writing on the whole (so long as I’ve got my stories planned in advance, which I’m happy to say is the case). I need adrenalin, I need to stop second-guessing everything. But then again, I do dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that my dialogue is going to sound right in the mouths of my actors, and a single misplaced syllable can ruin the comic flow of an entire scene, so my perfectionism certainly comes in handy. Just so long as I meet my deadlines.
TRENCH: I’m not involved in the writing decisions and deliberately keep myself separate. I’ve bounced a few ideas around and suggested things when asked at readthroughs but David has written extensively within the genre, studied at a respected institution, takes an active interest in his craft and is continually analysing and learning from other people’s work, working out and refining his own opinions and pallet. Throw me into that mix and I’m just a nuisance. I’ve only got the vaguest idea what’s planned for Season 2; I’ll find out at the first readthrough and I’ll really enjoy doing that and picking up the reigns with the things I do. From an actor’s perspective, as far as agonizing and perfectionism goes, I put as much prep and scriptwork in as I would for any other part then trust to that. The lion’s share of my work happens in the time leading up to recording. But I don’t really get retake envy on listening because that way madness lies and anyway that’s what directors are for. I always try to learn from listening to the finished episodes and look for room to make whatever the next thing I do is better. My only frustration is that the nature of audio work, unlike film or stage, means it’s inherently on-script. When you’re recording eight episodes back-to-back over four days, there’s not enough time to learn it securely and this isn’t the kind of material that takes paraphrasing kindly, nor is that particularly fair on the others with you in the studio. I try to do a loose learn and put the script aside as much as possible because the sound of someone reading is very different to the sound of someone in the moment, you can usually tell. That’s something I’ll be working on getting better at.
CHAMPION: The trio of mini-episodes that you recently released — especially the poignant “Casebook of Dr. Edgware” — reminded me that Wooden Overcoats has somehow found a distinct style that allows for occasional tonal shifts. The humor can often be conceptual (I think of the tape recorder in the newsroom), committed to cheesy puns (Random Mouse), farcical (Antigone’s romantic pursuits), and adventurous (the later episodes set more around the sea). Did you gravitate towards any particular comic strain in the beginning? At what point were you aware of a particular Wooden Overcoats house style?
BARNES: My original conception of the series was to infuse it with Gothic horror leanings, drawing upon some of my literary interests, but as I developed the characters in the pilot script – and as the other writers brought their ideas to the table – it was the humour that came to the forefront. Essentially, I just wrote what I personally thought was funny: obsessives who cause their own problems and can’t see it, being repressed when everyone else is a libertine, a touch of mild surrealism and perversity. There’s a dark thread running through it all, of course, which arises from the subject matter, but I try not to push it too much. It’s meant to be inherently enjoyable, not gross people out. I also like to avoid vulgarity and swearing, partly to increase the potential listenership but also because it forces more interesting uses of character, language and rhythm.
I’ve seen the series compared to Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, and so on, mainly as it’s a British sitcom and those are some of the closest references (especially to an American listenership), which is immensely flattering. My own radio / TV influences are in fact somewhat older – Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son are the ones I mention most – though also take in literature (Wodehouse) and theatre (Alan Ayckbourn). Ayckbourn in particular wrote tremendous roles for women and his great work in that regard always goes under-reported. But the other writers for Season One –- and now for Season Two -– will bring their own influences to bear, and then my directors and the actors will shape it all themselves and provide a consistent tone.
TRENCH: The readthroughs. I’ve worked with David and I’m familiar with his work and Overcoats is very him. He knows the rhythms needed in a scene to build up to a joke. I remember in early drafts he’d talk about putting in a placeholder joke until he came up with something better while he retooled the actual story around it but he knew instinctively where the joke had to be and the scene scaffolding that needed to go around it. I did a play with David once that had a gag in it that required someone overfilling a cup of tea. He spent hours experimenting with cups and muttering lines to himself to find the exact length of line that would work after putting in the stage direction. That’s the Barnes touch.
Beth, Ciara and I found during recordings that a house style emerged in performance. When we’re outside Funn Funerals or outsiders come in, the focus is on the characters who don’t work for the business. Every character is big and funny and ours become vehicles for their comedy. Any time the Mayor steps in, for instance, everyone becomes the straight man to him because he has the absolute highest status (and his insecurity in that status brings the comedy). But when it was just the three of us in the parlour, we found a sort of manic energy — like being constantly at Red Alert on the Enterprise — that worked for us. We really love doing those scenes. The character who breaks that boundary is Eric. Because he’s the antagonist, he can never quite be one of us but on the other hand he’s frequently the sensible audience lens for us so becomes the straight man against the Funns. A lot of the comedy comes from us assuming the higher status against Eric then being undermined by reality — except for in the Eric/Georgie storyline which has its own dynamic that gives Eric the punchlines.
CHAMPION: Are these mini-episodes your effort to show the audience where you intend to shift towards?
BARNES: Not really. They’re opportunities to experiment with form and expand upon our secondary characters, which helps us to develop their role in the main series. Rosie Fletcher’s “Random Mouse” was written to be an entertaining way to essentially trail Season Two; “Agatha Doyle and the Honey Trap” is a lighthearted Christie-style mystery by Tom Crowley; and “The Casebook of Dr. Edgware” by Tom and myself provides a new perspective on Season One from the viewpoint of a character who only originally had one line of dialogue. The ones we have coming up are entirely different too. But Season Two will continue the style and tone that we created in Season One, whilst taking the stories in a new direction.
CHAMPION: What input have the actors had on where you’re moving towards stylistically? Or is this really something that comes about naturally when you assemble a large cast of characters?
TRENCH: David has suggested I answer this one because he’s being even handed about breaking up the questions. Which is very lovely of him and I haven’t a clue. He told me the other day he now writes Rudyard with my voice in mind so with any luck I’ll be considered for the part if we do Season 2.
CHAMPION: Also, I listened to an Audio Drama Production Podcast interview with David and John Wakefield where the two of you described being very committed to homemade foley. How early in the production did you have the FX in place? I’m especially curious about the timing of Madeleine’s squeaks, which always seem to punctuate the right moments and remind us that we are in a comic environment. The squeaks also tend to soften some of the more unusual premises, weirdly rooting the narrative into something that’s real. The squeaks almost feel like something on a score sheet. At the risk of outing myself as a sonic obsessive type, I have to ask about the squeaks! How many do you have? Did you time them in the script? To what degree did you mess with the squeaks in post? Did the squeaks ever save your ass on a flub?
BARNES: They are indeed all script; Madeleine insisted on that. She’s a true professional, providing us with vocals that could run the full emotional gamut that a mouse can reach. It’s very difficult to find talent like that. After lengthy negotiation, she’s agreed to come back for Season Two, and the production team is immensely grateful. We wouldn’t know what to do without her.
CHAMPION: Well, David may be a fair-minded gentleman, but I’m not going to let him get away from unpacking this point! Does the concern for status, which I feel is a staple of good drama, emerge as much in the act of production as in the writing, even when you have a large character such as the Mayor? Or is this as rigorously planned as David’s inherent fixation upon timing? David’s placeholder jokes remind me of how Paul McCartney had “Scrambled Eggs” in place of “Yesterday” as he was still working out the lyrics for that now classic song (with the “Scrambled Eggs” version later performed decades later in a newly enhanced form with Jimmy Fallon). This may simply be the approach of a highly obsessive mind, for which I have nothing less than the most heartfelt appreciation for, but I am very curious how David contends with the vast unknown story element, perhaps an invisible territory of pages going well beyond overfilling a cup of tea! David, do you feel that story sorts itself out easier than specific lines?
BARNES: There’s the old story about [Billy] Wilder and [I.A.L.] Diamond spending ages trying to come up with a decent last line for Some Like It Hot and ultimately going with their placeholder gag because they couldn’t think of anything better, and now of course that line is one of the most famous in movie history. But of course it’s not a line that sings out of context; entire plot threads have been leading up to it, and it’s an immensely satisfying — and very, very funny =- capstone.
On the other side, writers can come up with an absolute zinger of a line and then tie themselves into knots trying to make their story support it, and typically that line will be one of the first to get cut by a decent editor. The best dialogue is the dialogue that fits the situation you’ve created.
Every writer has sat down at some point and just started writing dialogue without an actual purpose, and it’ll typically go nowhere and not be very good. It’s easier to sort out dialogue than a story, because plotting is torturous, but I think it’s nearly impossible to sort out good dialogue if you haven’t sorted out the story first. And then your story might change in the writing of the dialogue, which is great too. Switching destinations is fine, but you ought to have at least one in mind when you set out.
CHAMPION: Might this also account for the island’s vast tableau? Do the other writers serve as relief pitchers for your vivacious baseball game on this front?
BARNES: I feared when I wrote “The Bane of Rudyard” that we might exhaust the story potential within a few episodes, but then the other writers showed me that, yes, there was much more you could do with this set-up. I took a lot of inspiration during that first writers’ meeting, where my job was essentially to ask “What excites you about all this?” and then decide which answers inspired me the most. For both seasons, I’ve found it easiest to help the other writers develop their stories first and then formulate my own in response, but I begin with some firm ideas about what I want the series to do, to say and to explore, and I’m OK with telling a writer, “I’m not wild about this idea, can we do something else?” But then, all of the writers have come to the table with at least one idea I’ve adored instantly, and those ideas get developed into full episodes.
CHAMPION: What’s the biggest mistake you made in Season 1?
BARNES: Owing to busy schedules. the episodes were edited concurrently with release dates, which led to a lot of pressure and sleepless nights for all involved. The sound design is very involved and Andy and John require a lot of time to do their magic. We’ve sorted this out for Season Two. But remember: always allow for more time than you think you need.
CHAMPION: What’s the most extraordinary thing that you had to do to get an actor on board Wooden Overcoats?
BARNES: Character comedian and attractive man Kieran Hodgson was lured to the studio with the promise of sparkling dialogue. Instead he was placed before a microphone and told to moan orgasmically in French whilst we scrutinised him thoroughly for about forty-five minutes. He’s since gone on in other productions to speak whole lines of actual dialogue, albeit for far more disreputable companies such as the BBC.
CHAMPION: What’s the greatest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?
TRENCH: Be professional. Be original. Be ambitious. Sorry, that’s three but I think they’re all very important.
Professional means treating every aspect of your production with equal importance. Strive to work with new people and strive to create opportunities. As soon as you position yourself as someone making a thing, you enter a world with thousands of unheard voices who maybe don’t have the luxury of your ear so make it easy for them to find you and work with you. It also means learning about what came before and positioning yourself within that. Listen to as much as you can, not just drama podcasts, from as many different countries.
I say original because I’m seeing a lot of very good audio drama coming out in similar areas of storytelling. There’s a leaning towards genre and faux-documentary — maybe the Night Vale and Serial influences. I think a canny producer would ask themselves what they can do to separate themselves from the trend. A police procedural? A period piece? I’d listen to a Western. It also means thinking about what you can do with the medium. Beef & Dairy Network and The Bright Sessions are great examples of being playful with the fact that, at the end of the day, a podcast is just a sound file. Two examples from recent(ish) years on the radio: have a listen to Continuity, which was Alistair McGowan as a radio continuity announcer having a breakdown on air between fake trailers parodying Radio 4 formats, and Warhorses of Letters by Marie Phillips and Robert Hudson which was an exchange of love letters between Napoleon and Wellington’s horses.
And ambitious is the fun one. We can do anything in audio drama so… do. Submarine scrap yard? Two enzymes chatting while they ferment grapes? The parliament of the birds? I want to hear these worlds. What can you do that would require a massive time and money budget on telly? And what can you do that’s not been done in other media? Equally, be ambitious in how you make it. Look for great studios, look for unusual recording spaces, see how many countries you can get people involved in one project… there’s more (and more immediate) scope for us in this medium than any other I can think of so use that advantage to the full.
To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we chat with Lauren Shippen, creator and producer of The Bright Sessions, in a wide-ranging conversation about how Los Angeles traffic can be inspirational, YA, therapy dialogue, genre, the 1985 movie Clue, and neck snapping.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary audio drama called The Bright Sessions and listened to every episode with a speed and an enthusiasm rivaling a ravenous rabbit discovering a carrot field. The podcast is ostensibly a psychotherapist secretly recording her therapy sessions with young people, with each tape labeled with a mysterious taxonomic nomenclature. We come to learn that not only do these young people have special powers (the ability to jump through time, the capacity to read other people’s thoughts, et al.). But what makes The Bright Sessions so compelling is its more intimate approach. You won’t hear New York City destroyed in grandiloquent fashion after a superhero battle. But you will delve deep into the hearts and souls of the show’s characters.
I contacted the show’s creator Lauren Shippen (she also voices one of the patients, Sam) to express my appreciation and soon found myself in a fun and lengthy email volley about how Shippen came to create The Bright Sessions, thoughts on what radio drama can do for genre that other forms can’t, and some discussion of the 1985 film Clue. In tribute to the hashtag #audiodramasunday, which has recently taken Twitter by storm, I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of Audio Drama Sunday interviews with radio drama creators and their programs to help listeners and producers alike get a sense of the marvelous offerings out there.
If you want to listen to The Bright Sessions, go the website. You can also chip into The Bright Sessions‘s Patreon fund, which greatly helps this show stay afloat.
EDWARD CHAMPION: In audio drama, we have quite a number of wonderful podcasts being made that deal with investigations — what I call the “missing tapes” genre (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Limetown, et al.). These shows have responded, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly, to Serial‘s great success. It’s almost as if audio drama needed its own spin on the “fake documentary” style pioneered by such television shows as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and the like. But somehow your hook, which involves a psychologist taping the sessions of her clients, manages to transcend the tropes. I’m very curious to know how much you researched the audio drama climate before you started creating this show and if you learned any lessons on how to build an audience from your potential investigation. Also, I’m not sure how steeped you are in Dr. Jacob L. Moreno‘s notion of drama therapy, but where did your interest in psychotherapy come from? Why did you feel psychotherapy would be a great format for radio? (I’m also wondering if you’ve ever listened to the podcast, The Psychology of Eating, an often inexplicably fascinating show that deals with patients talking about their eating habits.)
LAUREN SHIPPEN: I actually wrote the first episode of The Bright Sessions in June of 2014 — before even Serial had been released. While I love the faux-documentary format of those podcasts (and of course, adore Serial), that trope didn’t yet exist when I first came up with the concept of The Bright Sessions. Instead, it was somewhat inspired by two very different radio shows: Welcome to Night Vale and BBC’s Cabin Pressure.
I was listening to these shows while stuck in the famed LA traffic and fell in love with the idea of audio drama. These shows showed two very distinct, very different paths to take: Welcome to Night Vale is mostly one man speaking into a microphone and Cabin Pressure is a whole cast with a large production budget performing in front of a live audience. As much as I enjoy Cabin Pressure, I don’t have the same resources as the BBC; the WTNV route seemed more manageable — I had a nice microphone and a vague idea of editing. But I ultimately realized I couldn’t pull off what WTNV does. I think WTNV works as a largely one person show because of three things: Cecil Baldwin’s performance, the beautifully surreal but funny writing, and the music by Disparition. Without a similarly magical combination of things, one person talking can get boring fast.
I wish I could say the therapy concept came out of some deep, clever thought process but – if memory serves – I was sitting in the aforementioned traffic, talking out loud to myself as the character of Sam (this is a weird but important part of my writing process) when I realized I needed to give her someone to talk to. The first thing that popped into my head was “therapist” and from there, the floodgates opened and everything started to fall into place.
I wrote that pilot episode in essentially one sitting. Then I got swept up in other things and didn’t touch it for a year. By the time I came back to it, I had become more familiar with the audio drama landscape as a whole. I had binged Serial, Limetown, and The Message. But my format was already determined. That being said, I did look to these and other shows to see how and where they existed online and how they promoted themselves.
I’m tangentially familiar with Moreno’s work, but The Bright Sessions was not particularly influenced by any one psychological theory. I used my sister — an actual psychologist — as a resource for how a therapist would talk or what methods they might use and did online research when necessary. I think my interest in psychotherapy actually comes from my background as an actor. The conversations you hear in the podcast are very similar to internal conversations I will have when developing a character – you have to figure out all their baggage, what makes them tick. Bizarrely, a lot of acting techniques are pretty similar to therapeutic ones, so it was easy to connect the dots.
I think the therapy format works especially well on radio for two reasons. One: it’s straightforward and easy to follow. It can be hard to pull off convincing action in an audio format, but it’s very easy to put together two people having a conversation. Two: there’s a voyeuristic element to it that I think is intriguing to people. Even though our patients are extraordinary, they are still dealing with very real, human problems. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be mined out of that and a lot to relate to. And because it’s an audio recording and not a video, I think it gives the listener the feeling that they are really there, listening in.
And no, I have not listened to The Psychology of Eating, though it sounds like something I need to put in my feed!
CHAMPION: On the subject of psychotherapists, I think one of the reasons your audio drama works so well is because Julia Morizawa is tremendously believable as Dr. Bright. We often hear an annoyed edge in her voice, a vague artificiality often vacillating with something real, with the slight pause just before she has to enter into that professional therapeutic mode. I’m so glad that your audio drama is paying attention to these minute cadences, whether deliberately or organically. It’s one of the aspects of therapy that can be irksome when you’re on the couch! And it leads me to wonder what work you did with Julia to hit these very precise notes and what prep you’ve done with your actors in general. Of course, what I’m detecting here may very well be the natural intimacy of radio! After all, if you listen to any of Anna Sale’s interviews on Death, Sex & Money, it often sounds like a therapy session. Why do you think the radio format lends itself more to a therapeutic vibe? Should audio drama be hitting this sweet spot if it expects to win over larger audiences? Also, how did these conversations with yourself in traffic contribute to the writing process you worked out?
SHIPPEN: Julia is a magical superhuman and The Bright Sessions would not be a tenth of what it is without her. That sounds like hyperbole; it isn’t. I’ve known Julia for about two years – we met in acting class at the BGB Studio in North Hollywood. That same studio is where I met Briggon Snow (Caleb) and Charlie Ian (Damien) — it’s a studio full of crazy talented people and I take as much advantage of that as possible. The moment I realized I didn’t want to play Dr. Bright myself (and yes, that was something I briefly flirted with), my mind immediately went to Julia.
I wish I could take credit for all the nuances that Julia brings to the role but all the layers and subtle shifts you hear are a testament to Julia’s talent as an actor. We certainly discuss the character and the story; I give my impressions and Julia always comes prepared with insightful questions and ideas. The first time we recorded, she lugged this enormous binder with her — it had the scripts, her own personal character biography, and pages of notes. Her dedication and attention to detail has made Dr. Bright an incredibly interesting and complex character and really changed the way I approached the writing her. No one, including myself, knows Dr. Bright better than Julia and I think that shines through.
On the whole, I don’t do much prep with my actors. I honestly don’t even give them that much direction when we record. They are all very talented people that I have worked with before and I trust their instincts. I’m still amazed I was able to convince these brilliant people into doing this little project — I really feel like I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast.
Our especially dedicated listeners (of which we have more than I could have dreamed — another embarrassment of riches) will be familiar with the music playlists I made for each character. While these have been very fun to share with our audience as bonus features, I made them for myself as a writing tool and for my actors as a way to round out the characters for them. While we were recording the first season, I shared these playlists as well as Pinterest boards. While not directly related to the plot, these were used to express some of the less tangible aspects of the characters.
I think the phrase you used, “the natural intimacy of radio”, is exactly why it lends itself to the therapeutic feeling. With radio, the listener can imagine whatever they want about how the person looks, what the setting is like, etc. This engagement of the imagination engages us emotionally as well and creates this atmosphere of intimacy. I think this is furthered by the fact that most people listen to podcasts alone, with headphones on. It feels personal in a way that TV or film doesn’t. As for an audio drama sweet spot, I’m still trying to find that myself.
The traffic conversations have been a big part of my life in LA and I’m sure have gotten me a few strange looks at stoplights. When I’m working on a character — whether it’s one I’m auditioning for or one I’m creating from the bottom up — I have to determine some things about how they talk. Where in my voice does their dialogue sit? What’s their cadence? What filler words do they use? This can all be worked out on paper or in a script, but I find it’s much easier to work through this process out loud.
So, when I’m doing a task that is taking up most of my focus — driving, cooking, doing dishes — I’ll pass the time by having imaginary conversations with these characters. Some of these conversations simply help me get into the mindset, but some end up in the final product. I think I was able to write that first episode in one sitting because I had worked out most of it in the car when driving back from Santa Monica during rush hour (never do this).
CHAMPION: I’m tremendously fascinated with the work you’re doing with the actors to establish these characters and very curious how, in this case, Julia’s notes altered the writing. How much of this story do you have planned out? And how much of the story has been dictated by the notes from the actors? What did these music playlists reveal about these characters that, say, unpacking a history and a backstory didn’t? Your filler description reminds me very much of how David Mamet layers his scripts with underlined emphasis and includes all these filler words or how someone like Kevin Smith is especially demanding of inflection points. My own feeling is that there’s a certain futility in this process. Because there isn’t a single writer, no matter how talented, who can completely transcribe human speech without the final artistic output sounding deliberately stylized. This can often take us away from the reality of what we’re experiencing — unless, of course, one is deliberately striving for a heightened reality. But it does raise some questions. Because no matter what the art, one does have to find a balance between reality and fiction. If we’re reading transcribed speech from Mark Twain or Emma Bovary’s inflections, our minds can fill in the details. But radio is more explicit about speech, even if we’re still using our minds to imagine what’s happening before us. How do your conversations in the car help you to find a compromise between some “authentic” blueprint and the organic nature of conversation that you end up recording?
SHIPPEN: I had written the first nine episodes (which make up the first season) before we all sat down for the first table read. I had a clear idea of who these characters were and where I wanted the story to go. And then I heard it out loud, as interpreted by smart, talented people, and things shifted. I don’t want to go too much into what the initial overarching plot of The Bright Sessions was for fear of changing people’s perceptions of what it is now, but hearing Julia interpret the character of Joan Bright changed the way I thought of the character. She became more real, more human, and her motivations changed somewhat as a result. This shift changed a lot of other characters as well.
Similarly, our production meeting before season two provided a lot of inspiration. I shared the first few scripts and told the actors what I had in store. And then they shared their ideas about the characters and how they wanted them to grow. A lot of the plot for season two grew out of that. The finale episode of this season is a direct result of that production meeting and a few ideas that Charlie Ian floated around. A lot of The AM has been influenced by ideas that Julia has had. So, while I do all the actual writing, my actors absolutely deserve a lot of story credit for the second season.
I don’t know what the music playlists revealed to the actors — that’s probably something I should ask them. For me, the mixes provide the general mood of the character; an energy. I listen to the mixes before writing the characters to get me in that mindset. It can also help me zero in on an overall theme within the character. For example, I built Sam’s whole playlist pretty quickly (she’s the character I voice so I know her very well) and afterwards I realized how much of the content had to do with the idea of “home.” That discovery told me a lot about the character and what was important to her.
I think you’re absolutely right — no writer can ever perfectly mimic natural speech. My use of filler speech, aborted starts to sentences, stutters, etc. function more as goal posts for the general speech pattern of the characters. Caleb says “like” a lot — he’s a teenager, he doesn’t always know how to express himself so he uses this filler word and doesn’t finish sentences sometimes. Sam has a lot of ellipses in her speech. She’s a nervous person so she stops to think of the right…word. I’ll write these kinds of things into the script and then the actors will adopt them and put them in the natural places, even when they aren’t written in. Then it becomes a volley between me and the actor — I write something, they improv and ad lib, I adopt those natural inclinations into writing the next time, so on and so forth.
The car conversations are vital in the early stages of developing a character. I can try and write out their speech patterns but it won’t solidify until I start saying it out loud. There are things that will look good on paper but sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud. And then there are questions that need to be answered. Does the speech go up at the end — if so, how would that affect the way they structure their sentences? Where do they pause? Why do they pause? Do they have to fill the pause with speech or can they sit in silence? All of these questions need to be answered and are easiest when worked through out loud. I don’t often return to these car conversations after I’ve gotten used to writing a character. Thought they can be helpful for figuring out how two characters who have never met talk to each other because each character relates to every other character in a unique way and that is going to change their speech.
CHAMPION: Aha! So as I suspected, your actors almost serve as “editors” for your scripts! This leads me to ask how you manage all the very helpful input you get from your talent. This may be tangentially related to the issue of natural vs. stylized speech, but have you ever faced a situation where your vision for the storyline gets disrupted by all the ideas from others? If so, how do you manage all the notes? How locked is the script when you eventually record it? Also, how and where are you recording it? Given that the patients are teenagers, I’m wondering if you ever considered using actual teenagers for the part. Aside from the car conversations and your work with the actors, do you talk to a lot of high schoolers to get a sense of their angst? (I’m thinking especially of Caleb and the adept way you handle his sexuality.) Given that you seem to be responding to what you have previously established with each episode, what steps have you taken to ensure that you never get caught up in tropes or predictable storylines? Do you have a natural end point in mind for The Bright Sessions?
SHIPPEN: The input from actors never feels too overwhelming or disruptive because it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll send out a script and get some questions and comments back and then I’ll make small adjustments to the script. A lot of the larger ideas come from “wouldn’t it be cool if” conversations about the overarching plot or character development. An actor will make a suggestion or float an idea about what could potentially happen in a season or in an episode and, if it works, I’ll take that suggestion and work it into the existing structure. As the sole writer of the podcast, all the details and specifics are up to me.
When we record, the script is 98% locked in, I’d say. It’s a final draft (that never seems to stop it from having typos) but occasionally an actor will ad lib or ask to say a line a slightly different way. But, beyond from a few minor line changes or improvs, the scripts tend to be consistent from page to episode. Editing also sometimes happens in post-production – I’ve cut out lines in the past that worked on the page but didn’t in the editing bay.
With a few exceptions, we record the episodes with both actors sitting across from each other, with individual mics on them. We go through the episode in it’s entirety a few times as I give notes. It’s a lot like acting in a class — we’re not crammed into a sound booth recording each line one-by-one — instead we’re recording the episode pretty much as it would happen in real life: two people sitting in a room together (my bedroom in this case — we’re very high tech).
Technically, only one of the patients is a teenager: Caleb. Adam is also in his teens, though not a patient, and Chloe is 20 when the series begins, so only just over that period in her life. But no, I never considered using actual teenagers. Firstly, there would be a lot of logistical and practical issues recording with someone under 18 and secondly, I never considered anyone other than Briggon for the role of Caleb. And he has nailed the high school voice, as I knew he would.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I talked to a teenager — I wish I could say I’ve done in-person research, but most of Caleb’s plot line is directly inspired by all the YA novels I read. Yes, I do still read Young Adult fiction. I’ve met my fair share of adults who don’t consider that a good use of time, but I politely disagree. YA fiction is consistently growing and changing and there are some real gems to be found. I read a lot, and in a lot of different genres, and one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a book that I couldn’t put down and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I think it has had a lot of influence on the writing of both Caleb and Chloe and I can’t recommend it enough.
I also spend a lot of time on Tumblr, a website that definitely skews towards a younger audience. There’s actually quite a bit of linguistic discussion that happens on the site and I think I’ve absorbed a lot about how teenagers speak and interact. On top of that, I read fan fiction — not of The Bright Sessions, but of other things. Fan fiction is written about and by many different people, but a good portion of it either explores the lives of teenagers or is written by teenagers. Reading teenage dialogue written by a teenager will give you a pretty good idea of what teenagers sound like. So I think my ability to write compelling high school dialogue is a combination of reading YA fiction, reading fan fiction, and observing teenagers on social media.
This actually transitions well into your question about tropes. A lot of fandom conversation and fan fiction is centered around the idea of tropes — either leaning into them or breaking them. In order to avoid tropes, you have to know what they are. And yes, you can watch a lot of film and television, listen to a lot of audio drama, and read a lot of books to get an idea of what the cliches are but it is helpful to have tropes distilled for you. That’s what happens in fandom discussion.
All that said, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about making things unpredictable. I focus on what stories I want to tell and sometimes that means taking a hard left and sometimes that means jumping directly into a trope – after all, cliches are cliches for a reason. But, to keep things engaging, it’s important to make a slight tweak when engaging with tropes. The Bright Sessions is built on this idea. A mysterious time traveler shows up! But…she can’t control her ability. A high school football player is having trouble expressing his emotions! But…not for the usual reasons. I think it’s really fun to lean into story beats that are familiar but give them a different flavor.
As for keeping the plot from getting predictable, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, in my opinion. When I see a listener comment with a prediction about the plot, I’m pleased if that prediction is very close to correct. That tells me that I’m on the right path, that I’m not going to jump the shark. However, you don’t want your audience to be able to predict everything. And that’s where the red herring comes in (Clue is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve had to delete an entire paragraph explanation of why because this isn’t my chance to write a dissertation of Clue). Currently, I’m seeing a lot of predictions about the end of season two that could be correct. The predictions make sense in the context of what has happened so far but they are largely in response to something that is a bit of a red herring. As a result, I think the end of the season is going to be unexpected at the time and make complete sense looking back (that’s my hope anyway).
As for a natural end point for The Bright Sessions…no, I don’t have one. I’ve heard a lot of other audio drama creators say “I know exactly what the last episode/last line/last season of my podcast is” – I am not that person. I had no idea how this season was going to end when I started it. I know where I would like characters to end up emotionally but I’m really just letting this thing organically develop on its own terms. We’ll see where that takes us.
CHAMPION: Your method of scouring for youthful banter reminds me of how the great novelist Megan Abbott conducts research. She also writes about young people very well and scours many online forums to get the tone right for her last few books. But I’ve detected a bit of Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon in The Bright Sessions. I’m curious to know more about The Bright Sessions‘s literary influences (including YA, of which, being a wide reader myself, I’m certainly not going to pull a Ruth Graham here!). Also, we’re living in a time in which we are saturated by endless superhero movies, Hugo Awards ballot stuffing by frightened white middle-aged libertarians, Comic-Con as a publicity machine, fan entitlement, and numerous other intrusions into genre storytelling. But the many genre audio drama podcasts I listen to — such as yours, Ars Paradoxica, Atheist Apocalypse, Tanis, Lily Beacon, Wolf 359, Eos 10, The Cleansed, far too many wonderful shows to list here — seem relatively insulated from these developments. It’s almost as if audio drama is operating in its own hermetic corner, relatively safe from any General Zod neck-snapping controversies. Do you think audio drama runs the risk of getting co-opted? Or capitulating to the audience too much? What do you feel you owe the audience? Do you think audio drama is enough of its own animal to beat the odds? And why (or why not) do you think that is?
SHIPPEN: I think it’s hard to say what’s not a literary influence on The Bright Sessions — everything I’ve written could probably be traced back to something I read once. I am an avid reader and I feel like every book I read becomes a part of my brain. YA has definitely had a big influence, David Mitchell is always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about world-building (especially on top of existing reality — he’s a master at that), and Philip Pullman (an all-time favorite of mine) has definitely had a roundabout influence on the last few episodes of this season (and on my brain in general).
I think audio drama is excelling in genre storytelling for a few reasons. Firstly, genre film and TV can often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the “smashy-smashy” (as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it). While people, myself included, go to these films for action, it is sometimes given attention to the detriment of character or plot. Unless the action is innovative and exciting enough to hold up a film (as it is in Mad Max: Fury Road, though that movie has pretty much everything going for it, in my opinion), you can’t just blow up buildings (or have Superman snapping necks) and hope people will be satisfied.
Audio drama is truly incapable of making that specific mistake. Action can happen in audio form – the audio montage in Wolf 359‘s “Mayday” is a stellar example of this — but action isn’t the go-to. Instead, the focus goes to the characters and the worlds. When you can’t distract the audience with shiny effects or crazy stunts, you have to work twice as hard to give them something to chew on. I think that motivates audio drama to innovate a lot more than other mediums.
Secondly, I think audio drama benefits from being independently produced. It costs money to make a podcast, but not Mad Max $150 million kind of money. There’s no studio to appease, no execs to give notes, no 20 person marketing team ready to merchandise your idea. Having audio drama be entirely in the hands of its creators provides the kind of freedom you can’t find in big genre movies. As a result, you see a lot more risk-taking and a lot more diversity in audio drama. Half of the podcasts you mentioned have female protagonists; Marvel has yet to make a female-led movie. There have been numerous news stories recently about how female characters in genre films were changed to male for fear that a female character wouldn’t sell toys. Even when genre creators try their best to widen the pool of main characters — and I really do believe that they are trying — there is a larger machine at work that can stall progress. To my knowledge, that machine has yet to exist in audio drama.
I couldn’t presume to predict where the audio drama world is headed — I’m still a newcomer but I feel like things have shifted in the year I’ve been working on The Bright Sessions. There’s more content than ever and the quality of said content seems to be getting better and better. I think there will certainly be attempts to co-opt audio drama — after all, it is a rapidly growing entertainment sector with low overheads and excellent advertising potential — but I don’t know what form that will take or how successful those attempts will be. But, whatever happens, I think audio drama will continue to find new and exciting ways to tell stories, whether independently or under a larger umbrella. Bigger is sometimes better.
As for what I feel I owe our audience: I want to continue to entertain and surprise them. I want to keep things unpredictable without making them ever feel like they’ve been misled or cheated. I don’t think I owe rainbows and sunshine — the audience doesn’t have to like every plot point or character — but I owe thoughtful writing, even when it’s painful. I owe them continued and respectful character development, enthusiasm to rival their own, and a satisfying conclusion to a story they’ve invested in.
As to when that conclusion will come is anybody’s guess.
PMACast- A Pretty Much Amazing Podcast: I have no idea if this tremendously useful musical podcast, which has prominently featured rocking indie staples, is permanently defunct or merely resting, but I am including it here in the hope that the producers resuscitate this show on a regular basis, for the clear passion and the fine assiduity that the producers (and guest contributors) put into finding new tracks was a very worthwhile part of my rotation. (Link)
Psychology of Eating: I am not really a fan of confessional call-in shows, largely because the people who produce these types of affairs tend to be predatory carnival barkers in the way that they respond to a person’s long-standing grief with pat reductionist answers that don’t even begin to chip away at pain’s lifelong hold upon a troubled person. Yet there is something both revealing and bizarre in Marc David’s approach that keeps me coming back. David spends an hour listening to someone — and it always seems to be a woman — coming to terms with her relationship to food and eating and how this has drastically unsettled her life, often her self-esteem, and her image of herself. These subjects are often living very good lives that they cannot seem to see and, through these conversations, we come to understand the insidious role that body image plays on many women, that the way in which these women seem to believe that they must walk the earth without a single ounce of fat on them is a remarkable and needless burden that deserves great consideration until we can inhabit a world that is more equitable in accepting people. (Link)
Radio Diaries: It’s hard to believe that this always fresh offering of notable historical figures has been around in various forms for twenty years. For this is often a tremendously moving portal into some of the important people who have slipped through the cracks — whether it involves tracking down Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks but who has been needlessly overlooked by historians, or listening to the perspectives of prison guards who hold watch over juvenile offenders in North Carolina and see and intuit more than you might think. (Link)
Relic Radio Sci-Fi (Link), Relic Radio Thrillers (Link), and Strange Tales (Old Time Radio): (Link): If you want to get up to speed on old time radio (or are interested in exploring the Robert Johnson-like roots of OTR), these three podcasts are the ones you need to listen to. In addition to featuring old stalwarts like Suspense, X Minus One, Quiet Please in active rotation, there are also slightly more obscure shows like The Creaking Door, Inner Sanctum, and The Zero Hour included in the bunch. Old time radio has a rich history extending many decades, one inexplicably overlooked as we enter a putative “golden age of podcasting.” And once you begin to pick up on the theatrical cadences and dramatic energy that these old shows had to offer, which is hardly confined to the piqued cliches that some attempting to follow in radio drama’s footsteps are regrettably mimicking, you’ll start to get a sense of what podcasting may be capable of as it continues to blossom.
Reply All: Okay, I have to confess that there’s something ineluctably techbro and tendentious about Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt that can be very off-putting, even though this duo has started to actively pursue viewpoints well outside of their “Wassup?” default setting. The pair isn’t always fair to their subjects, often jumping on listeners to condemn a particular point of view before having a chance to take it in, and can be needlessly self-congratulatory at times (the obnoxious “Yes Yes No” segments, in particular, have got to stop). So why am I recommending it? Because Reply All is still a worthwhile contribution to tech-related podcasts, especially when the stories pursue some seemingly pedantic but surprisingly rich subject such as how the man who invented pop-up ads lives with his ethical legacy or the remorseless and obdurate vigilante behind Ripoff Report. When Reply All allows its subjects to speak and tell their stories, it offers interesting insights into how technology summons human obsession, for better or worse. So I’m not ready to give up on Reply All anytime soon, even if I wish that its two hosts would stop gazing at their navels and look more outside of themselves. (Link)
Ronna & Beverly: This podcast is so good that it is often hard to believe that this show, ostensibly helmed by two fiftysomething Jewish women from Boston, is actually the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers named Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo. The two stay resolutely and hilariously in character as they interview comedy and TV celebrities for more than an hour, probing noisily into a guest’s love life, bringing up Israel, dishing up celebrity gossips, contemplating the size of Jon Hamm’s penis, offering many politically incorrect observations, and torturing their sound engineer Sam about what he does during his outside time. When guests go along for the ride, such as this terrific conversation with Stephen Toblowsky, Ronna and Beverly excels at levels matched only by The Colbert Report. (Link)
Serendipity: If the future of radio drama is ripe with possibility, then Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson are determined to burst through its natural limits with Serendipity, a recently introduced podcast that counts five episodes so far of varying experimental range. The debut episode, “Every Heart Has a Limited Amount of Heartbeats,” established an uncannily vivacious standard of field recording, intense incantations, and aggressive collage that immediately seized my ears and refused to let go. And while subsequent episodes have offered slightly more traditional fare, there remains great poetic promise in this program to back up Heppermann’s bold call to push storytelling boundaries. (A good introduction to Serendipity‘s ethos can be found through this Radio Drama Revival episode, which includes an interviewer with Ann Heppermann.) (Link)
Serial: There’s been some debate over whether Serial‘s second season can match the first (with many gossipy ADD types abandoning Serial for the true crime Netflix sensation, Making a Murderer), or whether the current story of Bowe Bergdahl isn’t so much the work of Sarah Koenig, as it is Mark Boal putting together a movie with crass opportunism. But Koenig’s reporting is not to be gainsaid so easy. She has spoken directly with the Taliban and, while Bergdahl may not be as sympathetic a subject as Adnan Syed, Serial is still pursuing very important questions on how someone condemned for treason and cowardice should be understood through his own constantly shifting motivations, which has caused me to listen to each episode at least twice. (Link)
Seriously…: This is a recently retooled version of several BBC radio documentary feeds, which appears to be the Beeb’s effort to attract younger listeners. There’s less of the hardcore reporting behind Assignment and more documentaries about video games and the Whole Earth Catalog. But if you listen to both this feed and the Documentaries BBC World Service feed, you should be able to listen to a well-rounded series of offerings from across the pond. And you’ll need to. Because the BBC only allows you to download these programs for a month before closing the gates for good. (Link)
Song Exploder: The setup is simple: find a greatly revered song or piece of music, tear it apart, get the composer or the musicians to talk about it (often producing demos and, in one recent case, a crude voice memo recorded into a phone), and discover the often serendipitous creative process behind some of the more rocking tunes circulating the present cultural clime. The show has recently ventured into the stories behind soundtracks as well, with Harry Gregson-Williams relaying how he got signed on to score The Martian. One does wonder how long this formula will last or whether Song Exploder may now be angling itself to be less about breaking down music and more of a territory manipulated by savvy publicists. But for now, Song Exploder remains a solid sui generis podcast. (Link)
Spark: Nora Young is a highly energetic Canadian whose voice sounds unnervingly similar to someone I once dated and no longer want to have anything to do with. But these are my hangups, not Young’s. And I’d be foolish and pusillanimous to condemn an extremely worthwhile offering of Canadian culture simply because of an alarming euphony. Young’s smart and vivacious meditations on technology often tackle heavy-hitting issues such as the casual way that couples invade each other’s privacy, surge pricing, and the ever present problem of time management. And in a crowded field of tech podcasts, Young’s weekly dispatches prove to be winning thoughtful epistles. (Link)
The Sporkful: This recommendation comes with a caveat: host Dan Pashman has a a rather relentless laugh. Pashman laughs at everything: his jokes, a serious situation, an awkward situation. You get the sense that he sometimes laughs for the sake of laughing, that he would laugh unknowingly at a funeral or when doing taxes. It’s an alarming laugh. We all know some guy like Dan Pashman who laughs at all times, who makes us wonder if the laugh is sincere or some troubling automatic impulse that may require therapy. The good news is that, after ten episodes of being suspicious of Pashman’s laugh, I did finally come around to digging his show and accepting his laugh. Pashman mitigates against his tittering by not being pretentious (even though his laugh, as we have established, is highly suspect). He is a lover of all food, even if he is often very wrong about it (such as believing the hot dog to be a sandwich), and is curious and mindful enough to perform such sui generis investigations such as sandwich gender imbalance and what it is like to dine out in a wheelchair. The strange and perhaps truly laudable quality here is that, for all of these progressive considerations, Pashman is never sanctimonious about it. But he does have the laugh, which is now too deeply ingrained within Pashman to be remedied. But maybe that laugh is the way for all of us to better appreciate food. (Link)
Strangers: I first learned of Lea Thau after I stumbled upon her remarkable, must-listen, soul-baring “Love Hurts” series (1234), in which Thau documented her efforts to find romance in stunningly honest detail: interviewing the men who rejected her, confessing her loneliness and her weaknesses, fiercely analyzing why she has stayed single and even subjecting herself to a questionable relationship expert. It was stunning and terribly brave radio that anyone in a place of loneliness and hurt might want to listen to. And this is, of course, what makes Strangers such an incredible program. The subjects, whether they be Thau or somebody else, are free to confess their most naked and humiliating feelings (such as a teacher who went years without learning how to read) and Thau’s intimacy forces us to empathize with them. Listening to Strangers, one finds great strength in confronting human frailties. And it is this quality, among many others, that makes several episodes of Strangers among some of the finest personal narratives to be found online. (Link)
Sword and Scale: On first listen, Sword and Scale might seem like a fairly sensationalist true crime show. But it’s far more than that. In exploring such intense topics as the 1978 Guyana mass suicide and the primitive human identity that we can’t shake, Sword and Scale willfully includes some of the most shocking and horrifying audio to buttress its viewpoint. But at its best, such as this investigation into media and gun violence, Sword and Scale succeeds in being an off-kilter, thoughtful podcast into our darkest qualities. The show does not shy away from anything (not even in discussing the human body’s deterioration) and, in so doing, shakes the listener out of a blinkered view to engage with difficult truths. Mike Boudet often narrates with an intensity somewhere between John Walsh and Arch Oboler, but it somehow strikes the perfect tone between theatrical drive and something oddly meaningful in the understanding. (Link)
Ten Minute Podcast: Will Sasso, Bryan Callan, and Chris D’Elia are reliably silly men for this goofy podcast, which features such dependable regular characters as washed up standup comedian David Greco, the warmly puglistic Everybody’s Dad, and Skype sessions with people who may or may not be bona-fide listeners. And it’s only ten minutes long, which means that even a flailing installment of this show doesn’t overstay its welcome too long. While the trio doesn’t show up together as frequently as they used to due to industrious show business careers, and the show is now on some kind of odd hiatus, I have a feeling that the show is merely regrouping for some newfound silly stage where it will surprise itself and its audience. (Link)
There’s Something Out There: Only five episodes of this fascinating podcast have been produced so far and one hopes that this isn’t the end. Because this is one of the best podcasts out there that attempts to wrestle with the wholly inexplicable: the incidents in life that one can’t quite explain, that often entail coming to spiritual or religious conclusions, but that all of us must contend with as human beings. With top-notch production value and something oddly journalistic in the way that the narratives are told, There’s Something Out There negotiates a smart balance between the factitious and the factual for which more podcasts, striving for authenticity, should take heed. (Link)
Thinking Allowed: When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed a few years ago, I was initially skeptical due to the apparent Anglophonic pomp and circumstance behind Laurie Taylor’s voice. But I’m glad I stuck it out with this extremely sharp and worthwhile program, which profiles sociology and ethnography in a breezy manner. (Link)
Third Coast International Audio Festival: Think of this as the nonfiction counterpart to Radio Drama Revival, whereby host Gwen Macsai and her team of dependable curators scour radio and podcasts to find the most moving and probing documentaries for these thematic programs. The show is quite happy to single out specific producers, such as formidable music documentary producer Alan Hall, whose moving portraits of Jeff Buckley and Elly Stone recently led me down rabbit holes that resulted in a rambunctious email thread with two friends over whether Stone was quite possibly the world’s most sensitive singer of all time. The regular podcast, Re: Sound, is probably responsible for me discovering more than a handful of the podcasts that are on this list. And there is no better showcase that I know of for some of the exciting voices flexing their talents in podcasting. (Link)
This is Actually Happening: The conceptual thrust behind Whit Missildine’s long-running program involves taking a seemingly unlikely human experience (living as a fake priest marrying people in Japan, a deadly shooting from a crazed shirtless man as a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere) and exploring every conceivable angle of what it was like to experience it without intruding upon the person’s story. Missildine layers the stories with moody music, but what I suspect he has truly set out to do is make the strangest stories more palpable so that we can broaden our notion of what existence is truly about. We have all experienced improbable adventures, but This is Actually Happening demands that we take these seriously. You leave an episode of Missildine’s program often in a strange and profound fog. That’s how good this show is at allowing another person’s intimate details to sneak up on you. It’s almost as if the listener is a kind of vicarious therapist unable to steer the details, but then that’s part of the point. (Link)
To the Best of Our Knowledge: Upon the first few listens, To the Best of Our Knowledge may seem like your typical topical compendium show: a casual rundown of notable names and fine minds offering the greatest cerebral hits for a public audience. But there is something quite subtly daring about Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson’s approach that has transformed me into a big fan. A recent hour devoted to the human voice featured several compelling segments, ranging from an African-American actor contending with casting agents telling him that he needed to be “more urban” to the way in which subtle patriarchal forces were singling out vocal fry to police the way that women are “supposed” to speak. To the Best of Our Knowledge also aired a particularly gutsy and thoughtful series on death over for several weeks, something that you really don’t hear much at all on a syndicated public radio show, that demanded its listeners to come to terms with mortality and its impact upon our lives. So Anne Strainchamps may seem to be a polite, urbane, and crowd-pleasing radio host. But as you come to listen to her, you begin to realize that she has a comforting dark streak and a wry sense of humor. Also, any show that allows punk historian Legs McNeil to get really pissed off on-air is good in my book. (Link)
The Truth: Spearheaded by the redoubtable Jonathan Mitchell, with considerable assists from such unsung improvisational wunderkinds as Louis Kornfeld and other dependable contributors from the Magnet Theater, The Truth is putting out some of the finest radio drama today. These are strange stories for our contemporary age, tapping into such moral quandaries as parental displacement, a delightfully satirical investigation into leisure, and an especially creepy story about damnation in the underworld. The Truth works as well as it does because it is committed to meaningful, somewhat soul-searching performances embedded within a calm and exacting atmosphere that is equally committed well-timed silences and faint rustlings. This gives The Truth a peculiar tension between something faintly comic and faintly fierce, feeling, at times, like a soundscape inspired from a David Lynch film. <(Link)
The Urbanist: There is nearly nothing on the airwaves that I can find that explores city-related issues with such rigor and international reach. Think of The Urbanist as a radio counterpart to CityLab, where issues ranging from neglected delivery drivers to urbanistas are explored in rapid-fire bursts in so many locations that one wonders if The Urbanist has somehow enlisted a massive army of regular contributors ready to be activated into action upon one sinister call from host Andrew Tuck. (Link)
The Virtual Memories Show: When people ask me where they can go to find thoughtful discussions on literature after they learn that my own podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, is no longer in production, I send them to Gil Roth’s loquacious conversations with top-notch artists and thinkers. Roth has this strange ability to get someone to talk thoughtfully for a good six minutes based on one question. And when I met Roth for the first time at a Brooklyn coffeehouse, I realized that this was something he seems to be born with. For he managed to get me to ramble at length for six minutes in a way that I certainly never intended to and that I usually don’t. There’s always a moment near the end of Roth’s show where there is a sudden beat, followed by the question “So what are you reading?” phrased in an intense interrogative manner that recalls the Senate investigating the Watergate scandal, illustrating his real purpose: to keep curiosity and thoughtful wonder about books that fewer people read alive. It’s a game I’ve abandoned in radio, for life is too short to pamper the petulant infants of the literary world when there are real readers you can invite to your extravagant dinner parties, but one that I’m glad Roth is still keeping alive. (Link)
We’re Alive: This stirring zombie apocalypse drama packs as many characters into its unfolding story as The Walking Dead and has built up a massive narrative of more than 100 episodes that it is quite easy to get pleasantly gripped by. We listen to the characters as they face resource shortages and lose loved ones, but We’re Alive, through a settlement erected at an apartment complex, appears equally more committed to exploring parallels between our present world and the dystopian path not taken. (Link)
The White Whale: Anyone fond of baroque, somewhat experimental radio drama should be listening to the crazed efforts of CyNar Pictures, which features a strange tension between the making of art and the discussion of art erupts with every installment of this gargantuan potpourri of spoken word, the rambling conversations of The Yokai Trilogy (almost a DVD commentary without end), and whatever other whims erupt from these mysterious producers. who have been at work on this possibly aimless, possibly highly purposeful project for a good year. There is a ghost story of some sort beneath all this meta banter, but it’s up to the listener to determine whether the specter is something chased through the act of telling stories or talking about storytelling. (Link)
WideShut Webcast: I first learned of WideShut through an episode of Sword and Scale, when the two podcasts collaborated on a gripping story about the Hampstead Satanic cult, a truly alarming and far from resolved case of sex abuse and false allegations that should cause pause for anyone in our age of outrage. Political conspiracy is Keelan Balderson’s stock in trade and there are fascinating questions here on how media shapes our notion of evil and how we judge other people. (Link)
The World in Words: This pithy show, unrolled in twenty minute installments, investigates language, but is, like any good topical podcast, very much invested in the larger world. A recent two part investigation into fake accents in pop music, ushered in by this worthwhile effort to contend with the pop punk sneer, proved especially perspicacious, as did these insights into how ASL is tinged with a Philly dialect. For anyone obsessed with such pedantics (and I’m afraid I shall be to my last dying day), The World in Words is a casually probing and invaluable entry into the way we communicate and its impact upon all around us. (Link)
WTF with Marc Maron: Marc Maron has many gifts as an interviewer and as a comedian, but what he does so well with his highly entertaining show is the way that he gets at the root of fears and anxieties in himself and in his guests. It’s reflected in his longtime obsession with a Saturday Night Live audition with Lorne Michaels, one that he finally got closure on in November, and in the burgeoning empathy that has crept evermore into his lengthy introductions this year. Maron can be troubled and often angry, but what makes WTF such a wonderful listening experience isn’t just the way it documents the history of comedy and increasingly music (although this is often very interesting), but observing a man finally having the courage to mature late in life. Maron is deepening in ways he may not even know. And in its post-Lorne Michaels incarnation, WTF hasn’t finished growing by a long shot. (Link)
This is the second of a year-end three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the first part, go here. To read the third part, go here.
Fugitive Waves: Until I had listened to The Kitchen Sisters’s very thoughtful podcast, I had no idea that an all-women radio station once flourished in Memphis during the mid-20th century (and was the idea of Sam Phillips!). Fugitive Waves has been doing incredible work finding meaning and history within snippets of sound and tracking down many fascinating figures whose daily lives involved significant advancements towards much of what we take for granted today and what may, in fact, be disappearing before us (such as this fascinating portrait of the late Taylor Negron, which was told largely through a series of voicemails that the comedian horded). (Link)
Great Lives: Great lives are often riddled with unfathomable sacrifices and ambition, and can indeed be so great that we scarcely know how great a person is until she is no longer around. And then there’s the matter of contending with greatness when we have never met the person in question. Influence remains a strange human predicament, but the details are always worth coaxing out. For how else do we instill our lives with the curiosity and the wonder to be as great as we can be for others? Presenter Matthew Parris is sometimes a tad too interested in aberrant gossip, but this program remains a reliable watermark illustrating the impact of a major figure on another prominent person’s life. And there are some fascinating inspirational sources, such as Monica Ali championing Richard Francis Burton or Ian McKellen on Edmund Hilary. The show reminds us that we are, even late in life, indebted to the people who formed us, who gave us some clue on how to go about living as greatly as we can. (Link)
Guys We Fucked: When I tell people how much I love this show, and how wonderfully courageous and honest hosts Krystyna Hutchinson and Corinne Fisher are, they look at me as if I’m some prurient middle-aged man. Well, perhaps I am in some way. But that’s not why I’m recommending the excellent Guys We Fucked. The setup involves the two ladies interviewing people who they have slept with or who have made a similarly splashing impact in their lives or who, like 62-year-old Jenice Matias, are still living the good life with a high sex drive. But this is not a podcast merely devoted to the licentious. There’s also a great vulnerability and sense of discovery in these conversations, with vital discussion points examining our relationship to sex, whether we be promiscuous or not. In a recent program, Krystyna described her many feelings in participating in her first threesome with her boyfriend. She was forced to reckon with the pleasure, the unexpected jealousy, the ennui, and the uncertainty of what transpired. It was one of those human moments, where the bawdiness gave way to ineluctable emotional dilemmas, that made me become an unrepentant booster of this podcast, that it wasn’t just some fun sex-positive show but one chronicling something much bigger that few people have the bravery to face and that we probably should in some way. (Link)
Here Be Monsters: Much like Sword and Scale, producer Jeff Entman is keenly pursuing some of the darker and challenging aspects of human existence — whether it be how a parent raises a small boy who suddenly realizes she’s really a girl or an extremely compelling and disturbing take on hate speech that is a must listen for anyone who cares about national expression. Entman rarely take the easy judgmental way out and it is his gentle compassion that compels us to dive deep into the lives of people we might not otherwise encounter in the real world. Entman is a true-blue humanist who pushes past our distaste and demands that we feel for the beasts and the demons we’d otherwise ignore. And if he’s this good now, I can’t wait to see the kind of radio he’ll be making five years from now. (Link)
Imaginary Worlds: I must confess that I’ve had a queasy and uneasy relationship with speculative fiction and fantasy over the last few years. I’ve always loved these genres and still dip in these reading waters, but the thoughtless agitation by frightened white men (seen with the Hugo Awards imbroglio) and the unearned arrogance of passable but not really all that terrific authors who seem to believe that being nominated for a World Fantasy Award is akin to Popehood has really helped to push me away. So I’m terribly grateful that the thoughtful and level-headed Eric Molinsky has gone out of his way to not only investigate tricky topics and listen to all sides (such as this episode on the Slave Leia controversy), but is rich enough in his pursuits to look into why certain types of stories (the paranoid and conspiracy-based appeal of The X-Files) take hold upon American culture. This is to speculative fiction what A Life Less Wasted is to video games: shining ruminative radio that has vacillators like me giving cultural terrain occupied by children another chance. (Link)
The Infinite Monkey Cage: It’s a fairly simple setup: put scientists together with comedians and have them discuss everything from quantum theory to the science of speed to genetics to the big bang. The conversations are always fun and thoughtful, sometimes heated, and the show remains a reliable stalwart among many science-based podcasts. (Link)
Limetown: I glommed onto Limetown, thanks in part to Jason Boog’s impassioned advocacy, and I’m so glad that I did. This is first-class radio drama and, once you hit the fourth episode, you won’t be able to stop listening to the entire run. It starts off as an homage to Serial, following a radio reporter investigating a mysterious “Panic” in a small town, before turning into a smart and riveting dialectic between science and the supernatural, and then folding in on itself with some high personal stakes. The show has top-notch production, great voice acting (particularly John Milosich as the obsessive scientist Max Finlayson), and sometimes veers into poetic riffs on Planet of the Apes, capitalism, what knowing your lover’s every thought really means — to the point where you forget, even as the final show takes on the form of a “live radio show,” that this is indeed an ostensible radio show, much less a radio drama. Limetown is very much the present and future of radio drama. It is not to be missed. (Link)
Longform: It took a few years for the boys at Longform to get their sea legs, but, now that they are attracting the likes of Ira Glass and Renata Adler (arguably her most revealing interview yet, thanks to Max Linsky’s enthusiastically persistent questioning style), the big draws are forcing these conversations about media and journalism life to mature quite gracefully. The dudebro talk is now at a minimum now that the hosts have gotten hitched and sired kids. And where else are you going to hear Ira Glass caviling with the interviewing style, forcing Longform to return for an unexpected rematch to atone for unasked questions? (Link)
Lore: In a podcasting climate crowded by many personal narratives, Lore distinguishes itself with its philosophical thrust, looking into the history of why people cling to possessions or how we live with hunger. Producer Aaron Mahnke’s investigation into the Cleary family is, for example, a fascinating examination of how Michael Cleary’s crazed belief that his wife Bridget was a changeling led to the most tragic outocme imaginable: the murder of his wife. But Mahnke seems to believe that there was something more human in the relationship that caused Michael Cleary to create a belief. Whether you believe Mahnke’s conclusions or not, his show is always thought-provoking, enhanced by a very atmospheric sound design. (Link)
Monday Morning Podcast (with Bill Burr): In addition to being one of the funniest standup comedians working today (and really you should see him if he passes through your town), Bill Burr puts out a twice-weekly podcast where he complains (often about banks, sports, drinking too much, and his problems with computers), looks things up on the Internet, offers advice to people who write in, and mangles the copy of his sponsors without apology. Burr claims not to give a fuck and often says a lot of foolish things for the sake of saying them, but there’s a weird humanity to Burr in the way he cares for the people who write in that makes him more than a mere everyman. The best parts of this show often occur when Burr’s wife Nia gets on the mike to rightly bust his chops for his errant views. (Link)
Mystery Show: When the great Jonathan Goldstein closed his witty radio show Wiretap earlier this year, I was bummed out, but delighted to find him cropping up on an episode of Mystery Show in obsessive desperation. His goal involved tracking down the mystery of a knotted jacket that once appeared on a Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox, a scene that never appeared in the show that had aggravated him for years. Goldstein needed peace on this pressing issue and producer Starlee Kine devoted a good 88 minutes for her friend, talking with actors, hounding Gabe Kaplan, tracking down co-creator Alan Sacks, entering the world of lunch box illustrators. It is such great journeys, revealing the wends and digressions of good faith investigation, that makes Mystery Show a great deal of fun and show its bright promise in our rigorous pursuit of the joyous unknown. (Link)
Neighbors: If podcasting is indeed in a “golden age,” this well-earned glory has much to do with the sudden influx of raw personal narratives to the airwaves unfolding in ways that the weak-kneed, risk-averse NPR oligarchs have neither the vision nor the originality to conceive. By now, you’ve undoubtedly glommed onto the fact that many of the podcasts on this list are composed of emotionally naked stories of people who have discovered some connection to the universe they didn’t know they possessed. The Nashville-based Jakob Lewis’s contribution to this field has everything to do with connection, even an unusual one. One especially standout episode explored the draw that stuffed animals have upon adults, a phenomenon that might be easily dismissed by the thuggish snark police as nostalgia or sustained adolescence. But in Lewis’s hands, this exploration becomes something unexpectedly poignant, where we become aware how the plush toys (one posted on a street flyer) allow many of these people to sustain a vital link between childhood and adulthood through the intimacy of sleep. It may be eccentric, but who are we to gainsay how a person remains a caring individual? Who indeed are we to judge the eccentricities of others? Lewis’s brilliant podcast contains vital questions about how our scrutiny of others affects their lives and, for a man like me who is trying to be kinder, it has provided a welcome wakeup call that we could very well be on the other side of another person’s judgment and why it’s so important to accept a quirk or a fallacy rather than condemn it. (Link)
Nocturne: I stumbled upon this marvelous night-themed podcast quite by accident. I’m someone who often walks at night and, Googling around at an early morning hour after an eight mile walk, I stumbled upon this stunning segment of a woman who took to walking in a effort to find a similar peace. And then I started listening to producer Vanessa Lowe’s other episodes, such as this investigation into night as something of an iconoclastic cri de couer, and started to understand how little our relationship to the dark hours has been investigated and how truly extraordinary this simple yet essential pursuit truly is. (Link)
The Noise Pop Podcast: If you’re anything like me, you’re probably on the hunt for underground music that you’ve never heard of, even if you’re an old bastard. (Okay, maybe I’m not that old. But I knew I had aged out of the concert scene years ago when a young man, seeing me excitably dancing, called me “Dad” at a Spoon concert. This has not stopped me from attending shows on a regular basis.) And if you live a busy life, well, that’s where finding the aggregators becomes a necessary option. I first knew of Noise Pop when I lived in San Francisco, where it was a reliable festival for emerging bands. I don’t live in San Francisco anymore, but I’m very glad that Noise Pop still has a strong presence in podcasting form through a very useful monthly show that celebrates many of the acts without resorting to the kind of snark found all too often in Brooklyn Vegan message forums and Pitchfork reviews. (Link)
Notebooks on Cities and Culture: I’ve no idea what Colin Marshall’s podcasting future is, but I hope it’s a bright and productive one. Marshall’s enthusiastic pilgrimages to many faraway and nearby lands (especially his ardor for Korea) have revealed angles on cities I never would have otherwise considered. (The Copenhagen shows are especially interesting.) His most recent campaign to raise funds for his podcast didn’t pan out (despite an indefatigable 67 episodes in his fourth season), yet his gallant and gracious visits to the people devoted who think about urban design and cities continues with a new project on Byline. He’s still contributing podcasts to The Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m including him on the list, even though he is in limbo, because my sense is that Marshall’s epic canvassing is only the beginning of something that could prove very groundbreaking and game-changing, if he’s able to find the support to keep his journeys afloat. (Link)
On the Media: If you care about journalistic ethics or any subject that involves our always-shifting media climate, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield’s long-running show remains essential listening. Garfield has the voice of a grizzled veteran who’s been working the room too long and is often best when he’s delivering cranky interrogations of people he deems egregious. Gladstone is the empathizer to Garfield’s gruff beat cop. Together, the pair valiantly upholds important news standards, but does so with the same spirit of fairness that they demand of their subjects. (Link)
The Organist: It took a little while for this podcast adjutant to The Believer to figure out what it was doing, but now that it is less committed to cutesiness and awkward radio plays (though that strain hasn’t been entirely deracinated), it has started to produce very interesting radio, such as this glimpse into what it was like to work for Orson Welles and this tremendously fascinating look at poet Christopher Knowles that really got me thinking about how loops and mainstream culture could very well be vital parts of being a distinct artist. There are some podcasts you have to stick with for a while to see how they develop. I’m thankful that I hung in there for The Organist, which I now greatly look forward to rather than remain uneasy about. (Link)
(This is the first of a year-end three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the second part, go here. To read the third part, go here.)
Because I walk a great deal and produce radio, I listen to a fairly hefty number of podcasts. The only person I know who rivals my heavy listening is the incomparable Fred Kiesche, a remarkably generous friend to radio who once confessed to me that he listened to 105 podcasts. (That the good Mr. Kiesche still finds time to be a dutiful family man and a hard worker is a tribute to his phenomenal character and his inspiring energies.)
Podcasting is not only an intimate and deeply meaningful medium that somehow always manages to refuel the soul, but it’s become an essential part of my efforts to understand numerous perspectives and other points of view. There are so many tremendously talented producers out there spending many hours of their precious time investigating human truths and unpacking existential quandries that I have felt incumbent to single out particularly outstanding examples from time to time on Twitter. But these efforts do not seem to be enough. Friends, who know of my fervent dedication, have often pressed me for the full list of titles. But because the number is quite large and there is something a bit gauche about consulting my phone and reading out a list of titles, I generally tend to hand-pick titles that I believe my friends will enjoy based on what I know of them and the time they have at their disposal. But this tactic, while honoring both producer and listener, is not altogether fair to all the podcasters I feel indebted to single out, for I am deeply loyal to and passionate about all of them.
So I’ve decided to reveal my full hand. This is the first of a three part article that will be released over the next week. Every podcast that I have listed below, covering variegated viewpoints and a motley array of topics, is doing incredible work in exploring the human condition and is worthy of your earbuds. Rather than break down the podcasts by subject, I am listing them in alphabetical order, with a few notes on why these shows are worth listening to.
99% Invisible: Roman Mars has become something of a rightful legend for establishing a formidable independent podcasting network, but he’s also a fantastically passionate producer, exploring the impact of architecture, design, and many other sensory realities we take for granted (such as wayfinding) without ever coming across as a know-it-all. Mars’s voice is warm and sincerely gushing, almost demanding that the listener bolt to the library to learn more. This program is a generous and well-researched resource for information junkies, getting into the history of military food and how it affected our kitchens and overturning, in Snopes-like fashion, the true history of milk carton kids, which was not as prominent in American culture as one might think. That Mars manages to pack so much into twenty minutes on a regular basis is a tribute to his concision, his very smart sensibilities, and his deeply meaningful impact upon podcasting. (Link)
A Life Well Wasted: Robert Ashley has produced only seven installments of his tremendously intelligent exploration of video games in in the past six years, but a newly released episode of A Life Well Wasted is always an event. The show, which started with a nonpareil oral history of Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s closing that brought heart and sophistication about how bonds are formed at a magazine, is driven by empathy and listening. Ashley does all the atmospheric sound and music on his own. The great composer Ennio Morricone recently defined a real composer as “someone who does the composition, orchestration and arrangement.” If such a definition can be shifted over to the podcasting world, then Robert Ashley is one of the most real podcasters we are very fortunate to have. (Link)
Anxious Machine: To what degree are we changed or possibly tormented by technology? Rob McGinley Myers is very much on the case, whether its tapping into his brother’s hatred for the Internet or an incredibly touching story about a woman who refused to believe that she was losing her hearing and how her life changed when she received hearing aids. What I love so much about Anxious Machine is how it is about technology without never seeming to be about it. It has this amazing way of emphasizing the human in all of its segments, almost mimicking the obliviousness of the profiled subjects in the way that a tool has changed them. (Link)
ARRVLS: There is a podcaster who I won’t name, someone who I mistook for a friend, who believes that he’s so good and so certain about people but who blew a very big chance he had at a major radio program and who only really cares about how he can use people. I know this because I’ve heard from a few others who were bamboozled by him. Which is a great shame. Because this podcaster’s failure to be a kind and understanding person, his tremendous solipsism and immaturity, is what is causing his work to suffer and preventing him, irrespective of my personal feelings for him (for good work is good work, regardless of whether the artist is a jerk), from being on this list. For this podcaster does not possess the rigor, the empathy, much less the robust commitment to truly connect with people. He only makes radio because he has nothing else going on in his life and, because he really hates himself and seems to despise the people who so generously tell him their stories, his work is little more than desperate conceptual lunges that never pan out. So when I discovered the confident, cogent, deeply meaningful, compassionate, and wondrous show known as ARRVLS, I knew I was listening to something that represented what this other podcaster lacks the inner courage and the humility to reach. What distinguishes ARRVLS is the way in which Jonathan I. Hirsch’s great work lets its subjects present their ideas (such as this remarkable view of the body as a map). Hirsch never strangles the listener into a prerigged conceptual thesis that is predicated on ridicule over reality. His mixing springs from the cadences of the people he listens to. He wants to not only enhance other people’s stories, but to allow you to feel them in the nuanced manner that he dramatizes the stories through his sound design. Hirsch is an extraordinary talent and I’m baffled as to why his work isn’t championed more. (Link)
Audio Drama Production Podcast: If you haven’t been paying attention to the podcasting landscape, we are presently in the midst of a great radio drama renaissance! Producers all across the planet are telling exciting new stories in this ever evolving medium. Where in the sam hill does one even begin to get the lay of the land? Leave it to Matthew and Robert, the fine enthusiastic Scotsmen behind Yap Audio Production, to offer not only an endless cataract of tips and tricks for unwashed and experienced producers, but who are vigorously tracking any and all known developments and creating a vital and inclusive community in the process. Whether it’s a detailed breakdown of binaural drama or the two gents riffing in their car on A to Z terminology, Matthew and Robert’s excellent program remains a must listen for anyone who is even remotely interested in audio drama narrative. (Link)
A Way with Words: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, based out of San Diego, are probably the most earnest and enthusiastic radio hosts on language working today. This is a call-in show, one that takes in queries about idioms, etymology, and odd lexical developments from listeners all across the country. So there is a certain populism involved, something that I have passionately defended in response to a few literary snobs who regrettably insist on sneering down on the rabble. But understanding language doesn’t have to be the province of the privileged few. As A Way with Words‘s weekly callers regularly remind us, words are something that affects all our lives. Barnette and Barrett are always unfailingly kind and patient and inclusive with the callers, reminding us that is our duty as thinking and feeling humans to do everything in our power to bring out infectious wonder and curiosity in all around us and not skimp out on the understanding. (Link)
BackStory: One of these days, some pedantic cultural journalist will identify the mysterious “Anonymous Donor” who helps keep this thoughtful program afloat. Whoever the donor may be, the generous help has allowed three endearingly effusive historians — each specializing in a different century — to produce one of the most low-key, relaxed, and far from humorless history programs on the radio. This great trio understands that looking back at the United States’s long relationship with Islam is vital to understanding what it is to be a Muslim in an age of Trump. But they’re not above delving into the history of shopping, a very useful overview of populism, and even America’s relationship with meat. The results, much like The Bowery Boys (see below), show that history need not be a turgid subject, but something so alive that it beckons an audience to seek the connecting threads to the present. (Link)
Belabored by Dissent Magazine: When the great Steven Greenhouse had to take a buyout from the New York Times in December 2014, America lost the only dedicated labor reporter working for a major newspaper. But Belabored, hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen, has been valiantly filling in the gaps, examining the ongoing “fight for $15” and helpfully filling in its audience on many of the important developments going on with organized labor. Interspersing Democracy Now!-style news summaries with author interviews, the show has become an invaluable resource for a topic that affects all of our lives, but that few media outlets seem to care about anymore. (Link)
Black Girls Talking: This perspicacious quartet of ladies are valiantly on top of pop culture, serving as a cheerful referendum on the privileged hubris that drives NPR’s obnoxious Pop Culture Happy Hour, whether it be interviewing Dear Kate founder Julie Sygiel or breaking down respectability politics with Janet Mock. This is pop culture talk that’s actually about something. The podcast somehow finds the energy to tackle racial representations in just about every major TV show and often gets into some lively and impassioned talk that seems to escape most self-appointed pundits. I was able to save myself a ticket for Magic Mike XXL (well, not that I ever really had the desire to see it), thanks in part to an episode that summed up everything I needed to know. And the regular crushes espoused by the ladies have had me wondering on occasion if it would be in my best interest to woo Mos Def. (Link)
The Black Tapes Podcast: Only a few months ago, this wonderfully creepy radio drama emerged on the Internet and has deservedly racked up a following. The show follows a radio reporter who sifts through a series of enigmatic tapes containing unresolved paranormal mysteries. From that simple setup, the show established a rather labyrinthine plot behind the tapes, something that goes deeper than a mere Serial meets The X-Files production. And that mystery has reached a point where the show’s devoted fans have transcribed all the episodes, hoping to find a way to uncover it all. When a podcast has that kind of well-deserved hold, you really see the power of radio. (Link)
Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt, one of the most generous and open-hearted readers in America, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his thoughtful conversations with today’s leading authors. Silverblatt often finds strange connections in an author’s work and his lengthy questions possess a dreamy and otherworldly quality that takes on a force beyond the book and the author. But Silverblatt is a deeply compassionate and very well-read literary enthusiast, gallantly vacillating between dependable stalwarts like Mary Karr and Joy Williams and hot talent like Paul Murray and Louisa Hall to urge his listeners to feel just as prodigiously as he does. The only real downside of this show is the rather corny theme song, but it’s a small sacrifice for the always capable and ever gentle questioning. (Link)
The Bowery Boys: For anyone fascinated by New York history, the sheer passion that shines through in this fairly regular podcast is well worth your time. Hosts Thomas Meyers and Gregory Young always manage to sound giddy, even when they are discussing such sinister topics as Typhoid Mary or the murder of Stanford White. A few recent shows have seen this ebullient tag team go out to the many locations they expound about and I hope future programs continue these peregrinations, as the Boys clearly need more than a loyal online audience to push their winning enthusiasm on. (Link)
Cephalopodcast: Depending upon your temperament, this podcast from the perspective of a toast-loving giant squid will either annoy you or delight you. For me, it’s an enjoyable and wonderfully bizarre recontextualization of the modern world. What crazed mind would conjure up a strange scenario in which a giant squid teaches his audience how to play a game of Monopoly while unpacking some of its sinister capitalist lessons? Wizard rock pioneers Paul and Joe DeGeorge, of course. But don’t think about that. It’s the squid’s overly excitable musings that matter most here. (Link)
Comedy of the Week: This is one of several BBC feeds I subscribe to. Results are mixed, for the comedy can range from deeply compelling one-man shows off the Fringe circuit to pedestrian episodes of sketch comedy series. But it’s always good to give this feed a shot. If I had not subscribed to the feed, I never would have found out about the remarkable quiz show, Just a Minute, or realized that several performers I enjoyed in guest roles on British comedies had sizable theater careers. (Link)
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Dan Carlin is one of the few podcasters who can keep you completely spellbound for four hours just through the power of his voice. That’s right, four hours. Every few months, Carlin drops a very long, deeply passionate, and well-researched consideration of some historical event. And when that happens, you have to find the time to listen to it. He’s that good, using little to no sound effects for his ruminations. I’m not especially keen on military history, but Carlin’s six-part series, “Blueprint for Armageddon,” made me completely fascinated about World War I dynamics for many months, particularly its game-changing effect upon how people viewed combat and the remarkably brutal battles. Dan Carlin is a national podcasting treasure for a reason. (Link)
Death, Sex & Money: Anna Sale is one of the best interviewers on radio today. She has this tremendous power of getting just about anyone to talk and tell her dark secrets, even as she reminds us that everyone, whether it be celebrities like Jane Fonda or a “homeless valedictorian” who made headlines has an inner story that is considerably more different than what we see on the surface. This show always feels beautifully intimate and low-key, almost as if you’re encroaching upon the world’s most private conversation. But it is always very human. (Link)
Do or DIY with People Like Us: Vicki Bennett is a long-time WFMU staple who flits in and out of rotation, but her sound collages are always a marvel of association and discovery, especially if you enjoy music. She has this incredible knack for finding the craziest riffs on pop music, weird yodeling anthems, campy songs about camping, and serves as a droll triangulator. This makes her somewhat close to Dr. Demento, yet Bennett’s thrust is cheerfully iconoclastic, urging us to break down some of the sacred cows and find the joys in destroying them. Bennett was one of my inspirations when I began creating a few DJ mixes earlier in the year that can be found in the old Segundo feed. Being on the other end of what Bennett does, I now know just how much work and happy accidents it requires to find the right transitions. That Bennett has produced as much as she has is a tribute to her indomitable energies and unique talent. (Link)
Documentaries BBC World Service: Anyone who truly believes that NPR is a hardcore news organization should have a listen to Assignment, which offers regular nail-biting segments from many far off corners of the world, whether it be the effect that the Syrian crisis has had on former football players to drug mules in Peru. You listen to these BBC radio documentaries knowing that the equipment now exists for anyone to go into the field and do this kind of reporting and you wonder why America can’t establish something that reveals global perspectives on this level. (Link)
Drama of the Week: Another BBC feed that, like Comedy of the Week, can be a mixed bag. But very often, the shows are well put together. Because the BBC has this annoying one month limit on its downloadable content, it’s always good to siphon off whatever gets sent out into the world for later listening. I once downloaded a radio drama of The Sea, The Sea starring Jeremy Irons by accident because of this strategy. (What sensible mind wouldn’t want that?) (Link)
Earbud Theater: This popping compendium of genre radio drama (largely horror and science fiction) has good production quality, gripping stories, and a few big names (Stephen Toblowsky, source text from Neil Gaiman, et al.). I’m especially fond of “Super Bad Day,” in which four people are united only by the common experience of having the worst day imaginable and must contend with the guilt and absurdity of surviving a bad day. It’s a fine and lively riff, with a hell of a kicker ending, on the human dilemma of comparing other people’s miseries to cope and living with sacrifice. (Link)
Everything is Stories: We often do not know how our actions touch people, much less the way in which someone we think we know has touched someone in the past. Everything is Stories is a wonderful show that is all about exploring the amazing achievements that lurk underneath our personal core and that are sometimes muddled by pain and needless hangups. A recent program followed forensic artist Lois Gibson, the sharp mind who successfully identified the sailor kissing the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J Day in Times Square photo. But the story that led her to this achievement is surprising and touching, especially as we come to learn the real reasons why she became so good at identifying faces. Everything is Stories reminds us that history is often composed of small tilting moments and it is always a gripping listen. (Link)
First Day Back: There comes a point in all of our lives in which we need to take a hard look at our lives, finding the strength inside us to rebuild and reassess our priorities. And filmmaker Tally Abecassis is doing just that in real time, documenting her return to filmmaking after six years of being a full-time mother. This program is a magnificent soul-searching confessional on balancing work and life, the difficulties of living with decisions, and often has Tally backtracking to the people who shaped her (such as this episode in which Tally seeks out a teacher who made a huge impact on her). Personal narrative podcasts are often tricky negotiations, but there are some fine questions about gender roles, personal stakes, and the bravery of making another attempt contained in this compelling program. (Link)
Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce: Frank Delaney may be one of the most cheerfully determined men in the podcasting world. He is in his seventies, but that’s not stopping him from unpacking James Joyce’s Ulysses in bite-sized installments. (He’s done the first six chapters so far and there are, as of this writing, just under 300 installments.) One hopes that Delaney will live long enough, much as Will & Ariel Durant managed to finish their Story of Civilization in their nineties) to complete his project. Thankfully, with generous donors, he has recently escalated his pace. Re: Joyce is a tremendously useful service for anyone who cares about Joyce and literature, one that has led me down some strange rabbit holes involving Irish history, Catholicism, and cheesy limericks. (Link)
Back in 2005, I prepared a list of literary podcasts. Five years later, the original list has become outdated, with many of the previously listed programs biting the dust. (There were many more that appeared and disappeared, including the Washington Post Book World podcast, which folded with scant notice not long ago. This was too bad. Because Ron Charles hammed it up in a manner all too rare in a mainstream books podcast.) Literary podcasts, while nowhere nearly as abundant as they should be, are still around. And this updated list represents an effort to track any and all podcasts of a literary or books-related bent that are presently being produced.
This list includes podcasts of a books or literary nature that are still putting out new episodes on a regular basis. If a podcast has not put out a fresh installment in the last six months, or if the podcast limits itself (such as an author reading from his book during a set period of time), then I have not included it. I have also excluded comics-oriented podcasts: not because I’m against comics (far from it), but because there are just too many to list. On this subject, I direct all interested listeners to The Comics Podcast Network, which has done a fine job of uniting numerous shows under the same umbrella. I also felt that radio programs that didn’t feature books as a central topic (such as Fresh Air, an all-purpose program that often features authors) shouldn’t be included in this list. The hope is for all books-related podcasts to be collected at one helpful central point.
I should also warn the reader in advance that this list, while inclusive, does contain a few subjective descriptions, particularly in relation to bland mainstream media — a sentiment emerging from my considerable frustrations with the dryness and scarcity of present literary radio. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of good ones to listen to.
If I’ve left anybody out (my apologies), please feel free to note any missing podcasts in the comments, and I’ll be sure to add them to this list. Hopefully, this post will generate a useful nexus.
The Agony Column: Rick Kleffel doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his considerable archive. He’s been doing this since 2002. More genre-oriented, but there’s some literary folks too.
Arts and Ideas: BBC’s flagship arts program. Includes in-depth interviews and vigorous philosophical debates.
The Bat Segundo Show: My own humble and eccentric podcast based out of New York, which features more than 300 in-depth interviews with the likes of John Updike, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Marilynne Robinson, and more. New episodes every Friday.
The Biblio File: Often odd but enjoyable interviews from Nigel Beale. Updated intermittently.
The Book Studio: Based in Washington DC, WETA’s Bethanne Patrick features numerous interviews (both audio and video) with contemporary authors.
Book Tour: Not the most compelling interview program. But if you like your interviews without spontaneity, this NPR program’s your best bet.
Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt has been around for a long time, but his interviews are quite thoughtful and a must for any literary enthusiast. New episodes every Thursday. Aired at KCRW.
Lewis Burke Frumkes: Weekly interviews with authors from a guy in New York who’s been around a while.
The Marketplace of Ideas: Colin Marshall’s program (airing in Santa Barbara) features several author interviews pertaining to “books, culture, commerce, and fascinating concepts.”
Morning Media Menu: Galleycat’s Jason Boog interviews authors about the publishing industry.
World Book Club: Produced by the BBC, there’s a new author interview each month. Presented by Harriett Gilbert.
Writers & Company: This CBC podcast (hosted by Eleanor Watchel) features a new author interview every Monday. (Regrettably, podcasts are only archived for four weeks.)
Antithesis Predestination: A five volume novel read by J. Daniel Sawyer. “A character-driven espionage thriller that follows the adventures of ten people from different worlds, and their personal obsessions that send them hurtling headlong into history.”
Apostophre Cast: Dry but straightforward biweekly program devoted to contemporary authors reading their work.
Awakenings: “A podcast discussion show that is dedicated to deciphering all things about The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel book series by Michael Scott.”
Bound Off: A monthly literary audio magazine featuring new stories from writers.
Crimewav: A podcast series hosted by Seth Harwood devoted to reading published crime stories.
The Dark Verse: A prolific podcast devoted to “sharing the strange works of M. Amanuensis Sharkchild with the sole purpose of introducing a unique world of horror and fantasy that will follow you to the visions of your sleep.”
Dunesteef: A nonprofit story forum, focusing mainly on genre.
Escape Pod: A science fiction podcast magazine that features a new short story every week.
Forgotten Classics: This podcast is devoted to authors who have been unfairly neglected by the sands of time. Featuring sample readings and some information on the writers.
Librivox: Hosting a number of podcasts devoted to reading stories.
Selected Shorts: PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. New episodes every Monday.
Writer’s Block: Every Wednesday, the Writer’s Block (based out of San Francisco) features a contemporary author reading a selection from one of her latest books.
Authors@Google: Regrettably, Google doesn’t have a central website for its author talks. And I’m not sure if this technically counts as a podcast. But you can sift through the general purpose Talks@Google YouTube page.
The Book Babble Show: A news-oriented podcast that features shows devoted to such topics as online author fanaticism and whether critics have any influence upon reading.
The Book Show: Hosted by Ramona Koval, this startlingly prolific Australian program features new installments on weekdays.
Books on the Nightstand: Unlike some mainstream podcasts confining themselves to soulless corporate boardrooms, Ann Kingman’s wonderful and far-ranging podcast features festival reports, review roundups, and other segments, providing a disparate mix for literary lovers.
Free Library Podcast: The Free Library of Philadelphia permits listeners who can’t make it to author events to listen to the talks.
The Guardian Books Podcast: A very solid offering of lively books banter that demonstrates the great disparity between mainstream literary coverage in the UK and the States.
NPR Books Podcast: This isn’t so much a podcast proper, as it is a depository for recent NPR books-related segments.
Slate’s Audio Book Club: This mainstream podcast has made many of my literary friends angry due to the low quality of discourse. But it is included here because Stephen Metcalf, who cannot be faulted for trying, certainly does the best he can to contend with egotistical nincompoops.
The Writer’s Almanac: Garrison Keillor tends to put most people under the age of fifty to sleep, but his daily five minute collection of biographical notes and other miscellany can contain a few interesting morsels.
Tor Tor includes two podcasts for science fiction fans: Fiction with Mur Lafferty and The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Classic Poetry Aloud: This independently produced podcast (Author unknown: “Who I am is not important. The point is the poetry.”) gives the Poetry Foundation a run for its money with nearly 550 poems available for your listening pleasure.